Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I Should Be Glad of Another Death

Every Advent I am blissfully haunted by the story of the magi (Matthew 2:1-12). "Westward leading, still proceeding..." Prior to being met by the Christ, I myself was nothing more than a wandering pagan mystic. I love their story, and I love the testimony Eliot puts on their lips in this poem:

Journey of the Magi (1927)
"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a 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 sherbert.
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.

- T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

* * * * * * *

The 8th century B.C. prophet Micah of Moresheth is one of the first to prophesy the coming destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Micah 3:12; Jeremiah 26:18).

"Therefore, on account of you
Zion will be plowed as a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins,
And the mountain of the house will become high places of a forest."

The matchless Temple of Solomon had ceased to be the "house of Yahweh" and was now just "the house" because of how God's covenant people treated each other with gross injustice and regarded Him as little more than a tool for their own power. So they were to be destroyed along with their idol, "the house." But Micah never pronounces judgment without also speaking hope.

"And it will come about in the last days
That the mountain of the house of the LORD
will be established as the chief of the mountains.
It will be raised above the hills,
And the peoples will stream into it.
Many nations will come and say,
'Come and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD
And to the house of the God of Jacob,
That He may teach us about His ways
And that we may walk in His paths.'
For from Zion will go forth the law,
Even the word of the LORD from Jerusalem"

The "peoples" and the "nations," previously godless, will journey to die to their old lives and to find true life in the Word of the LORD. They return home, by the way, to "an alien people clutching their gods." They are never at home again "in the old dispensation," for they have been born again to the new dispensation, the new covenant sealed with the blood of the baby of Advent, the Lord Jesus Christ.

"Though all the peoples walk
Each in the name of his god,
as for us, we will walk
in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever"

They came as aliens to be "born again...through the living and enduring word of God" (1 Peter 1:23). They returned home as aliens, "not of the world," even as their Lord is "not of the world" (John 17:16). Their "citizenship is in heaven" (Philippians 3:20). But is this death, the death Eliot's magi found in the Advent birth?

"Therefore, if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God...therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead..." (Colossians 3:1-5). There is a longing after that journey to see the Word of the LORD incarnate, a nagging sense that leads the born-again magi to stare beyond the stars, knowing that real life is a step beyond the veil. It drives us powerfully and unstoppably, this "promise of life in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 1:1). In a land of people clutching their gods, it makes us glad of another death, a death that makes the leaving behind of everything in this world infinite gain compared to the inheritance of the Word of the LORD.

"For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake" (Philippians 1:21-24). The attitude of the world-wanderer: my life is elsewhere, and it is everything - so while I here I live completely for the benefit of your faith in Christ. In the midst of "an alien people clutching their gods," may we "be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith," and may we "rejoice and share [our] joy" with each other (Philippians 2:17,18). May we be glad of a death unto a new birth, and sojourn unto a death filled with gladness for the joy set before us (Hebrews 12:1-3).

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