From the gospel: “The star they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house, found the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage”.
A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year for a journey. It was one of those winters, the snow and cold never let up. Even the camels seemed angry and sullen at being dragged on this long journey under these conditions, their feet sore, lying down in the melting snow. There were times, so many times, on that journey when we regretted even starting out, for we had everything at home, everything to make us comfortable, everything to meet our wants, our desires—home, where it was safe, where we were well thought of as people of note, known for our wisdom. But these reveries were always shattered by the drunken shouts of the camel-men, who would constantly abandon us in every large town.
We went on because of the star, that star we had seen that night months before. We searched our charts, we consulted others, we placed our crystals at just the right angle to the moon, but there was no information. But the star—the star was like nothing we had ever seen. And so we started out, we set out in some sort of faith, looking for something, for we said: ‘Surely this star is meant to announce something great.’ And after all, with all we had, with all we knew, there was always that void within us, that knowledge of something important missing, and, somehow, in some way, we hoped that this void would be filled.
One of my companions had heard, who knows where, in some obscure literary text, or on some internet site, that there was to be born a king, the king of the Jews, and that this star might be the announcement of his birth. And so we set out, we set out to follow that star, and perhaps, for we did not know, to find this king. There were those close to us who called us crazy and who urged us to not set forth. But we set out, we set out. But as I said, it was a hard trip, bitter. Our night fires constantly went out, the people in the villages hostile and sullen, the innkeepers constantly overcharging us, the food practically inedible. I look at my companions while they tried to sleep. I saw the look of weariness on their faces. Ah, how I longed for the peace and comfort of my home! I nearly woke them up and said: ‘Why don’t we turn back? Can’t you see that this is folly, a wild-goose chase?’ But then I looked up and saw the star. How could we stop when that star shone so brilliantly, its light piercing, penetrating, causing almost pain in our hearts?
It was wet and cold but with no snow when we arrived in the royal city. Beggars swarmed around us, and we threw them some coins. The wind came up, and it began to clear. I looked up at the sky, and a moan escaped my lips. My companions were also looking at the sky, and I saw there on their faces despair, anger, and deep tiredness. For there was no star. It was not there. But we had come all this way. Oh, please, let it not be for nothing! We are educated men, we have tongues, we have know-how. ‘Hey, you there, boy! Where is the king’s palace?’ It was not a very large city, so we found it quite easily. And we were welcomed with great hospitality, for they saw who we were. I did not like his face, the king of this place, I could not read his eyes, but he showed us the respect we deserved. We had wonderful beds, exquisite food, choice wine, civilized conversation, even copies of the Times delivered every day. The morning before our audience with the king, we discussed among ourselves whether we should just stay here for a while and enjoy this and go no further. It was like home: contentment, safety, sane by the standards of the world.
When we mentioned the birth of a king to the king of this place, he suddenly jumped out of his seat and called loudly for his court astrologers and magicians. And it was they who read us the prophecy about where this king would be born, in a town not too far from this city. This quickened our interest, and we decided to give this one more chance, one more stab at giving this trip some meaning. The king asked us to stop by on the way home if we did find this king, so that he could go himself to give him homage. Then suddenly, looking around me, I felt no longer at home, ill at ease, as if this had no longer anything to do with me, that I must leave, and so we went out into the night, and we looked into the sky—and there it was again. Its light seemed to bore right through our souls and now we trembled, for now we knew that it had not been in vain. So we hurried. Our pages could hardly keep up with us.
It was now cold again when we arrived at that little town some hours later. I shall never forget the light of that star, and it sounds strange to say that it led us to that place—but it did. And when we arrived—what can one say? That it was not what we expected? That is an understatement. We did not expect that palace and that king. But this! But this! The woman holding the child to her breast, the man standing over them, the smell somehow of straw and animals, a manger of wood. Is this what we came all this way for, is this what we had suffered for, the cold, the stench, the weariness? I thought we had come all this way for a birth, but this seemed in its own way like death—this birth, so hard. We went in and saw the child. The light of the star shone on his face. And what we saw there: how can I explain it to you? What can I say? But what we did was to fall down there before this child and prostrated ourselves before him, for what we saw there was something we never dreamed of in our wildest dreams. It was all that we had hoped for, but I cannot explain. All I can tell you is what we did. Our gifts yet unopened, we fell down and worshipped him. And as we did, the star vanished—but the light remained.
We returned home, but with a feeling of shatteredness. That was a long time ago. And I tell you again what I have asked myself these many years: what were we led all that way for: birth or death? There was a birth, certainly, we saw the evidence of it, we saw the child and his mother. But I thought that birth and death were different. This birth was like hard and bitter agony for us. Yes, we returned to our places, to our homes, but we were never again at ease in this world we knew as home, this world that had given our lives meaning. I felt and have felt ever since that journey as if I am an alien among these people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.
Father Richard G. Cipolla
Gratias T.S. Eliot
Preached at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City