Epiphany Musings

A sermon delivered to St. Paul’s School, Concord, NH at morning chapel on Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

The Journey of the Magi – T.S. Eliot (1927)

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, 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,
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.


The season of Epiphany in the Christian calendar begins each year on January 6th, when we observe the manifestation of the newborn Jesus Christ to the journeying magi, or wise men. The full season extends until Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Coincidentally, this season that follows Christmas comes at the very beginning of our calendar year, New Year, when we have all made promises to ourselves of new beginnings, new resolutions for the year ahead, and we have renewed optimism for our life and work.

We all experience our own epiphanies from time to time. Sometimes these can feel like sudden realizations of a direction we want to take in life. Perhaps they manifest themselves as strong feelings of who we are, deep down, as people. Sometimes, these epiphanies can lead us in such radically new directions that they force us to leave behind an aspect of our lives that has heretofore been of huge importance to us. A friend. A relationship. A marriage. A conviction that this one way is the right way for us. As T.S. Eliot implies in this morning’s poem, with the birth of something new comes the death of something old.

T.S. Eliot, one year before writing the poem, had an epiphany of his own, and converted to Anglo-Catholicism. “Journey of the Magi” is a narrative, told from the point of view of one of the magi, that expresses themes of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed. I am sure that most of us can relate to these feelings in our world today. Eliot’s words may not suggest the positive energy for change and excitement that we might expect from someone who has supposedly witnessed the original Epiphany. When the magi visit the baby Jesus, Eliot expresses the idea that there is a new start, brought about by the death of something familiar. “Birth or Death?”, he says. Again, with the birth of something new comes the death of something old.

Some of you know that my principal interest outside of work here at SPS is musical composition. One of the things I really appreciate about an academic schedule is the opportunity to switch gears during the long vacations, and devote my time to writing music. I never identified as a composer growing up, or even through college. I was more of a dusty old organist type who tried to get interested in the mechanics of the instrument, but quickly tired of all that, opting instead for a more generalized approach to music. I learned to acknowledge my lifelong love for Tudor polyphony, Johann Sebastian Bach, the Anglican cathedral repertoire, mid-20th Century musical theatre, and 80s Brit Pop. Over the past three decades, I have allowed these genres to influence my own compositional style, although often this will happen subconsciously. Interestingly, after immersing oneself in a creative project, requiring substantial investment of self, there is a combined feeling of elation at the completion of the work, and a period of mourning that the creator/creation relationship is over. With the birth of something new comes the death of something old.

As former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, says of T.S. Eliot’s poem, “(We have) a new start that is felt only as the death of all that has been familiar; and yet the old world goes on, galloping aimlessly like the old white horse. Eliot never wanted to present religious faith as a nice cheerful answer to everyone’s questions, but as an inner shift so deep that you could hardly notice it, yet giving a new perspective on everything and a new restlessness in a tired and chilly world.”

It occurs to me that our school is a place rich with epiphany. I’m not talking about lightbulb moments that happen daily in the classroom. True epiphanies don’t just happen out of nowhere, and they are relatively rare occurrences. True epiphanies rely on a significant reservoir of knowledge, depth of thought, and investment of time and energy. Innovations are not epiphanies. However, with the ever-changing nature of our school community from newcomers to graduates, teaching fellows to retirees, newborn babies to deaths of loved ones, we are constantly experiencing the birth of something new and the death of something old.

I hope we can all cherish the journey while we are here. The ways deep; the weather sharp; the dead of winter; the melting snow; the summer palaces; the sleeping in snatches; the voices that tell us it’s all folly; the old white horses; the new babies; the fulfillment, light, and gladness of a true epiphany.

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