T.S. Eliot and Dreading Christmas

Few people have likely ever been so dismayed by the passing of Christmas as the Magi and the prophet Simeon, as least as the poet T. S. Eliot portrays them. In his poem “Journey of the Magi,” the Magi travel all night through the “worst time of year” with tired camels while missing the comforts of home, and believing their journey to be “folly.” Eventually, they do encounter the Christ child, which makes the journey seem worthwhile. Finally, as one of them says, they return home,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

Their journey has concluded, but the Magi is not set free from its effect. His life has been given a new horizon and a decisive direction, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says in Deus Caritas Est, and he cannot ignore that he has met God in the flesh. Though he lives in a society that knows enough to interpret the signs that a King has been born, he does not live in a society that has truly encountered God; they are committed to other gods instead, and having a different horizon to his life, the Magi can only see his countrymen as strangers. As Benedict says in Spe Salvi, even his astrology is transformed, as now, the stars are “moving in the orbit determined by Christ.” Once the Magi has encountered God, he cannot find any satisfaction to his desires anywhere else, and this seems a curse to him. Why must his life go on after he has see God in the flesh? Is not that alone enough to fulfill his life? What else could he possibly encounter that would transform his life? His life seems to have been fulfilled, and so it can end now. In death, he knows that he will encounter God face to face again, and so he does not fear it as much as he does the protracted waiting amongst people who cannot understand him. The Magi cannot just let Christmas fade into banality; he is always remembering the birth of a King that is the death of his old life.

The Despair of Seeing God

Along the same lines, in “A Song for Simeon,” which, like “Journey of the Magi,” is from his collection Ariel Poems, Eliot depicts a weary Simeon as saying

I am tired with my own life and the lives after me,

I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.

Let the servant depart,

Having seen thy salvation.

Here, there is none of the exultation that Luke implies in his telling of Simeon seeing the baby Jesus in the Temple, after having waited for so long to see God’s salvation. In both the Gospel and the poem, his life, his faithfulness, and his waiting are rewarded with the encounter of God in the flesh, but Eliot’s Simeon seems almost resentful that he was made to see God, because he knows that this encounter will be a blessing that dwarfs all else that follows, and he cannot bear to think that his life will continue to go on after it has been fulfilled. After this encounter, his life will be tasteless. He is afraid that that which seemed good before will now fail to satisfy. Furthermore, as Jim Shepherd says about Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “conversion experiences don’t stick—or they don’t stick for very long. Human beings have to be re-educated over and over and over again as we swim upstream against our own irrationalities… Don’t think for a moment that because you’ve had a brief instant of illumination, and you suddenly see yourself with clarity, that you’re not going to transgress two days down the road.” Simeon and the Magi have had their epiphany, but is it enough to carry them through the rest of their days? There is always the fear that even though they have seen the face of God, they will turn away.

Life Goes On

Simeon and the Magi are confronted with the awful reality that the moment of epiphany does not provide them with rose-coloured glasses. Conversion is not a passport to Eden, where they will not have to live by the sweat of their brow. To quote David Bentley Hart, “while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.” Simeon and the Magi see that victory, but also realize that, instead of being able to enjoy that victory in its fullness, the struggle of keeping God’s word and being faithful has just begun. Eliot’s speaker in Ash-Wednesday begins by saying he does not hope to turn again; he has converted and seen that the world is still a place of struggle, so why should he convert again if nothing shall be new? He could have been comfortable enough with the old gods.

Simeon and the Magi are never quite free of the vice of materialism. While they know that the goods in their lives and cultures cannot satisfy them, they are still jealously enough attached to these goods that when they encounter something greater, they are dismayed by their goods’ inferiority. They obey God, and they acknowledge His greatness, but they do not give themselves over to Him entirely, and still seek something else. They are reminiscent of the young man who asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. He follows all of the commandments, but when Jesus tells him to sell his possessions, he is sad, for he has many. If he does this, he will have greater treasure in heaven, but first he must sacrifice that which he knows will give him happiness, be it only a limited happiness. This is not necessarily deliberate rebellion; after all, to give up the habits of a lifetime is difficult, and it is natural to find oneself pining for the goods to which one is used, but it highlights the fear that these men feel at making such a leap of faith in believing that they will find something as satisfying as that which they already know.

Christ the Tiger

The claim God makes on them is absolute; they cannot encounter God and then go about their lives as if they have had a normal and forgettable day, and it is not the case that they have uploaded a new spiritual app among many to their souls. Instead, they must allow their horizons to be broadened in ways that they cannot control. Indeed, in Eliot’s poem “Gerontion,” the speaker calls Christ a tiger who devours us. Christ is terrifying because of how absolutely one must give oneself over to Him. He is terrifying because, as Pope Benedict says in his 2012 Christmas homily “We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach, we want our plans and purposes to succeed. We are so “full” of ourselves that there is no room left for God.”

We want happiness that we can be sure of, even if it is lesser than the happiness that we can find when we take that leap of faith and let go of what we know. We want to be the ones grasping on to something, instead of letting ourselves be grasped. To let ourselves be grasped would be to give up power and control. It would be to allow another person to define us, instead of having the licence to define ourselves. Karol Wotyla, later Pope St. John Paul II, says in Love and Responsibility that freedom is for love, and love is an emptying of oneself; it “means to limit one’s freedom on behalf of the other.” However, accepting this limit requires trust in the other person, that the beloved will fill the emptied lover with something good. We know that the materials we cling to are at least somewhat good; we have learned not yet learned to trust that the tiger who devours us is better. And that is the virtue of hope: that the ultimate loss of self, death, does not have final victory. On the one hand, Simeon and the Magi despair of their lives, seeing them as suffering and delay, believing that they cannot sacrifice all to which they had clung before. On the other hand, they have hope not just that death will end their waiting to see God again, or that it will remove them from the alien lands in which they live, but that they can be emptied of all to which they cling and be filled with that which is fully good. In their decrease, they know Christ will increase.