Daily Reading for January 5
E. M. Forster said that the most deep and terrible line written on the nativity is the last line of Yeats’s poem, “The Magi”:
Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor. The magi mysteriously shimmer as faces in the sky, forever peering back behind Calvary to their encounter with the baby lying on the stable floor among oxen and asses, a revelation so mysterious that its depths still baffle them, ever preventing them from being satisfied.
The key to their dissatisfaction is the terrible word “uncontrollable.” Magi were spiritual technicians. Their role was to assist people in getting control of their destinies through divinizing, augury, and horoscope. They offered means of controlling divine presences and forces through spells, charms, and rites. Human religiosity is about control. If the divine is close at hand, right here, then we can manipulate it. It is within our grasp, susceptible to our control. If, on the other hand, the divine is far away in a remote heaven, then we are on our own, and our religious practices serve just as well to calm our fears and put a spiritual gloss on our attempts to keep order.
What met the magi at Bethlehem was the mystery of divine creativity itself, which cannot be usurped or deflected; the uncontrollable mystery of God’s sheer initiative, which cannot be bent or blocked. What met them was the mystery of suffering love, which cannot be bought or seduced, there, right there, lying on its back on the bestial floor. Here is the uncontrollable mystery of Love present in all its fullness as a vulnerable baby.
All at once their potions, their horoscopes, their charts and crystals, their incantations and secret lore collapse into nothing. So they unload onto the floor where the baby lies gazing at them their obsolete bag of tricks—the talismans of gold, the incense with which they fogged and scented their rituals, the myrrh they used for magic ointments. They let all these go in the presence of the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
From “The Uncontrollable Mystery” in Nativities and Passions: Words for Transformation by Martin L. Smith (Cowley Publications, 1995).