The Magi and The Ships of The Desert

I have been thinking of camels, the gangly cud -chewing, one humped dromedary type used by frankincense traders to make the long and arduous journey from southern Arabia to the northern regions of the Middle East. They are known as ships of the desert.

Their cargo on the Advent journey was the magi, with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 

  • An intriguing description of the three gifts is here.

  • Last year's post on the Magi is here

Image Frankincense

Of the four evangelists, only St Matthew tells of the journey made by astrologers
from the East who travelled westwards to Bethlehem, apparently guided by a star, to 
worship the new King.

Some theologians have emphasised and exploited the symbolic nature of the journey
of the magi to explain the spread of religion,man’s quest for religious meaning
of one kind or another, and the common bond that unites mankind in that search for eternal truths.
The journey of the magi is witnessed by us as they move westwards following the signs in the 
sky, like a mariner constantly calculating position and direction from the ever-changing
patterns of stars.

According to Matthew's gospel the magi arrived up two years late for the actual birth of
Jesus : no-one knows exactly how many there were, or even exactly which animals 
they used for their journey but the camel was the usual beast of burden for these
epic journeys. In Matthew, we aren't told their names, or even if they were all men, 
nor even any mention that they were kings.
Oral tradition holds that the Magi could have also been Zoroastrian priests,

an ancient religion that can be traced back to Persia and the Prophet Zoroaster.

It is a dualistic religion that believes in principles of good and evil, light and darkness, and stresses "good thoughts, good words and good deeds."More info here.

The church doesn't  formally celebrate the arrival of the magi until the 
feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, and in several countries this is the day when 
presents are exchanged but no decent nativity set is complete without
the three figures. 

The focus on the intensity of the physical and inner spiritual journey of the Magi is described perfectly in the poem The Journey of The Magi by T.S. Eliot written in 1927 and a useful article on its meaning can be read here.
"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." 

Below is a rare recording taken from a live interview T. S. Eliot did for the  BBC, broadcast during World War II.  The maker says "the original audio was pretty bad,  but I cleaned it up as best I could." I thought it would be nice to include it here because it is  interesting to hear a piece of work read by its author.

The song below by The Waterboys is called Strange Boat.

Instead of boat, think ship- now the link to the ship of the desert.

I know it's a bit of a stretch, but I like the words of this song and for me it conjures up some of the feelings Advent and Christmas can evoke, along with the inner transformations each of us undergoes as we make a singular but also a communal journey to discover the meaning of the Incarnation of Christ.

We may think we have the hindsight of history to know what we will discover at the end of our journey to Bethlehem. 

The reality and impact of the incarnation is also ever present in the here and now  at any stage and any age of our life. 

So in a sense, the path we set out on in Advent is always a strange journey. 
We are so often strangers to our own real selves, our cargo shifts depending on the specifics of what baggage we bring with us, what we leave behind and what we shed on the way to Bethlehem.


 We're sailing on a strange boat
Heading for a strange shore
We're sailing on a strange boat
Heading for a strange shore
Carrying the strangest cargo
That was ever hauled aboard

We're sailing on a strange sea
Blown by a strange wind
We're sailing on a strange sea
Blown by a strange wind
Carrying the strangest crew
That ever sinned

We're riding in a strange car
We're following a strange star
We're climbing on the strangest ladder
That was ever there to climb

We're living in a strange time
Working for a strange goal
We're living in a strange time
Working for a strange goal
We're turning flesh and body
Into soul

Margaret Silf writes on this passage from the gospel of John:

" Let what you heard from the beginning remain in you
If what you heard from the beginning remains in you, then you will remain in the Son and in the Father." - I John 2: 24.

" What was it that first drew your heart more consciously toward God ?

Perhaps a glimpse of the mystery- something you did not understand but intuited in a moment of deep peace, or of a profound relationship with another person, or of awe and wonder in some aspect of God's creation.

In such moments, a spring of grace breaks into our lives and potentially changes everything . 

Keep those moments alive. 

Let them remain alive in you and continue to empower and assure you."
Margaret Silf : Extract from A Book of Grace Filled Days 2012. Loyola Press.

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