With the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI on the day before the Epiphany, the Catholic world bade farewell to a wise man, a scholar-pope, at the end of his pilgrimage. On this day, our observation of birth and life and a new year intermingles with death.
So it was for the Magi as imagined in T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, “The Journey of the Magi”; and so it is for us now. Though not the immediate association, Christmas has much to do with death, with the pilgrimage of life that must find its way through what Pope Benedict called “the dark door of death.” Eliot’s poem captures the uneasy mortal meditations of perhaps the myrrh-bearing Magi with this conclusion:
…but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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This poem, coupled with the passing of Pope Benedict, reminds us that the Nativity was for the Cross and the Passion for the Resurrection. Life and death are inseparable partners in the course of human salvation; and the Christmas spirit, as one that is sensitive to human salvation, is sensitive to life and death. And so, it is fitting that we end the season celebrating the birth of Christ with the death of a holy man.
The secular Christmas spirit that kicks Christmas trees to the curb on December 26 is one that rejoices without reflection, seeking humanity in mere humanitarianism; Bethlehem without Calvary; Black Friday without Good Friday; joy without the journey. In his life and works, however, Benedict XVI showed us the true way like one of the Magi himself:
The journey of the wise men from the East is…just the beginning of a great procession that continues throughout history. With the Magi, humanity’s pilgrimage to Jesus Christ begins—to the God who was born in a stable, who died on the Cross and who, having risen from the dead, remains with us always, until the consummation of the world.
The Christmas spirit, the true Christmas spirit, the spirit that should kindle in us now to burn brightly for all the year and for all of our lives, is about epiphany—about revelation—a stripping away of the scales that blind and the systems that bind us all, ultimately foretelling a freedom from sin and death.
We are all in this together, and the true Christmas spirit is an attitude that shows the truth of our pilgrimage, our fellow pilgrims, and our pilgrimage’s end, allowing men and women to recognize one another in the context of heavenly oblation, not earthly obligation.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
And shouldn’t we all? Death comes in many forms, some redeeming, some rescinding. For all his wisdom, Benedict’s legacy, like the Wise Man in the poem, is touched by error and even retreat. But no one is free of shortcoming, or fear, or even failure. The Christmas season is a call to remember the gifts we are graced with and the resignations we are guilty of—and advance. Christmas is, indeed, a time of life and death.
Eliot was attuned to the mystery of the King of Kings as he wrote about the three Kings: that Christ was born to die that we might all be reborn at the end of our journey. On another but similar plane, Charles Dickens was attuned to the mystery of humanity as he wrote about the heavenly mysteries of Christmas: that people often have to believe in ghosts before they can believe in God—which is the faith that leads on to the understanding and empathy of fellow men.
These are Eliot and Dickens’ ways of sharing their discovery that Christmas is as much about graves as it is about glory. Or, as G.K. Chesterton put it, it’s more about “Christian charity rather than Christian ecstasy,” that is, death-to-self rather than self-satisfaction. But, like Eliot’s Magi, we can find satisfaction by adopting the charity described by Dickens when he says:
I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
Thus, and beautifully, the idea of pilgrimage is expressed in the same breath as the grave. With Benedict’s funeral, this year’s Epiphany—standing as it does on the threshold of the road of a new year—sounds the call for Catholics to renew the pilgrim heart.
The Magi completed the first pilgrimage on the first Christmas, initiating, as Benedict XVI put it, “a great procession that continues throughout history…”: a pilgrimage that started when the Magi came to a cradle in Bethlehem which Eliot suggests made them think of their coffins.
We travel toward death and life all together as brothers and sisters in Christ, recalling, as Benedict said, “the journeying of humanity towards Christ.” This is the wisdom of the Wise Men, and our late philosopher pope followed in their footsteps of star-chasing theology, knowing that, to this day, the Kings “represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason.” This wisdom comprised the pilgrimage of Benedict XVI, and so should it ours as we brace for whatever our road holds, from cradle to grave.
The joy of pilgrimage evokes one of the happy ironies of humanity—that we are, as St. Peter said, foreigners and exiles here at home. We are out of place. We do not belong where we are. We are chasing after a higher home. We are restless travelers, strangers in a strange land. We are homesick at home. But a further paradox of the pilgrim is that he is light on a heavy road and finds joy in the weary way.
This is the true pilgrim vision: to see, as all wise men do, the joyful juxtapositions of faith and reason, peasant and king, Heaven and earth, God and Man. Such improbable juxtapositions and implausible relations are a great cause for joy, and especially as they are enshrined in every fellow pilgrim we meet along the way of our lives.
Pope Benedict XVI said, “The Magi are filled with awe by what they see; heaven on earth and earth in heaven; man in God and God in man; they see enclosed in a tiny body the One whom the entire world cannot contain.” Now, at the end of his earthly pilgrimage, this wise man, whom we knew, can see beyond what the Wise Men saw. He has found the Holiness he sought. May eternal light shine upon him.
So, together, upon this Epiphany, let us open our shut-up hearts freely and love one another as fellow-passengers to the grave; and let us renew our pilgrimage with the exhortation of the servant of God fallen asleep in the Lord, Benedict XVI:
Dear brothers and sisters, let us allow ourselves to be guided by the star that is the word of God, let us follow it in our lives, walking with the Church in which the Word has pitched his tent. Our road will always be illumined by a light that no other sign can give us. And we too shall become stars for others, a reflection of that light which Christ caused to shine upon us. Amen.