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.
I first read these gripping words in T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” in high school, and they have never left me. They returned to me when I sat at an infant’s funeral. It felt more like a sort of wedding. The infant’s casket was too small to bear record of wrongs, of hurts, of sorrows. In place of regrets was reverence. That child’s first sight would be of its Lord – it’s one and only encounter would be of holiness. That ceremony seemed more like a fulfillment of things that were meant to be, rather than a parting. I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different.
This week, those words came back to me again. This time, in the midst of planning for a wedding, I was summoned to a funeral. In the midst of thoughts of a union and beginning of new things and new lives, the news of separation and of death crashed in like silent thunder. I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different.
T.S. Eliot’s poem captures the mood. Sometimes life seems instead to be an experience of a quiet death; sometimes death seems like an entryway into life. Of course, in his poem, he is describing just that kind of uncanny contradiction in the life of Christ. Born to die, living to die, and dying so that we could live.
In the third stanza of the poem, Eliot describes through symbolism what Christ accomplished over death by His life:
Then at dawn we came down to a
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of
With a running stream and a water-mill
beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in
away in the meadow.
The valley smells of vegetation, of life. The stream and water mill “beating” the darkness are references to Christ as the water of life. Three trees are for the three crosses of Calvary. And the old white horse (representing death) is galloping away, driven out. Without ever mentioning the name of Jesus, Eliot pictures the impact of a life that overtook death.
The symbolism is even more direct in the next few lines, with images taken straight from the crucifixion and life of Christ. He mentions six hands dicing for silver, and feet kicking empty wine skins. Of course, both of these descriptions are also found in Scripture.
But when the magi of the poem complete their journey and actually encounter Christ at His birth, the strange twist to it is realized. They see One who was born to die, and because of it, they are changed by a spiritual death that awakens them to a new life with Him. After that, they cannot simply return to their old lives.
We returned to our places, these
But no longer at ease here, in the old
They are changed by the encounter with Christ. They no longer live for the temporal things or are satisfied with the pleasures they had left behind. Their journey had been hard, but it only led them onto a road where they would learn to die gradually even as they looked forward to another life. “I should be glad of another death,” the poem finishes.
Paul speaks more to the point about this kind of spiritual death into new life, the first death and the second death. As a result of Christ’s birth and death, we die, little by little, during life – but only so that we can live anew after death.
“And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:10-11).
“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6: 3-4).