‘A cold coming we had of it: the worst time of year for a journey and such a long journey—the ways deep and the weather sharp—the very dead of winter.’
Eliot’s poetry brings the journey of the magi alive in our imagination. No quick jaunt in search of spiritual thrills but a deep longing, long considered and painstakingly carried to a conclusion, with all the arts and sciences of the ancient world at their disposal.
So how did they get it so nearly right and yet so completely wrong? To come all that way in the heart of winter and then be off by nine miles.
I suspect its because they believed their own propaganda. Isaiah 60—our first reading—lays out the protocol for visiting dignitaries: when the light dawns, when the king comes, the nations will stream in caravan to Jerusalem bringing their gold and spices, bringing their trade goods, bringing prosperity and new honour so that this trivial city on its little hill will be lifted up into history once more. Good news indeed to bring to a king and his court and all his merchants—money is coming: riches and honour and glory.
But when Herod consults his religious advisors they don’t turn to Isaiah 60 for their text but to Micah 5. Not a merchant’s text, not a king’s—but a peasant’s blessing. Not prosperity and trade but a leader to shepherd the people, the poor, the folks in the field being ripped off by people in power and the imperial ambitions of neighbouring states.
All of which is beginning off-centre: nine miles down the road to the south in a dusty village with few pretensions. And even there it is all happening off-centre: in a cow-shed to a couple with shame in their past and asylum-seeking in their future.
Why does God choose Micah over Isaiah? Bethlehem over Jerusalem? The barn over the palace? Wouldn’t we like to know! Whatever the reason is, it seems to stretch to God’s way in all things. And that’s worth our remembering in retreat. Where will you go, in these days, looking for the signs of God in your life? To the usual places? Or will you take the risk of heading south a little, looking a little off-centre and seeing what’s being born in the cattle-barns of your own heart.