Christmas is almost here and Andrea and I have been giving our friends and family printed copies of W.B. Yeats’ 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.
It is perhaps a strange choice for a Christmas poem, with these “pale unsatisfied ones” being further “unsatisfied” by Easter. The literal story here seems to be the wise men on their way back to Mesopotamia, having witnessed not only the birth of Christ but his life and eventual death. They, like us, look back on these historical events and cannot understand them in their full significance; they “still haven’t found what they’re looking for” (which is not Yeats but U2).
As you may know, Yeats is well-known for his dark, cyclical view of history, as evinced in his deeply disturbing poem “The Second Coming”: “and what rough beast / its hour come round at last / slouches towards Bethlehem / to be born?” (I made a film based on “The Second Coming” at York.) There the birth in Bethlehem is not one of messianic hope but calls to mind the terrifying vision of an antichrist who will plunge the world into chaos (“mere anarchy is loosed”), a fitting epithet for the darkness of the twentieth century.
But “The Magi,” whether it looks in that final line to the birth of Christ or of something (someone) much darker, makes the darkness and dissatisfaction feel like the first stage in a sort of rebirth. And so it captures perfectly the convergence of anticipation and uncertainty, of prophecy and fulfillment, the passage from one age to another, that we encounter at Christmas. We, along with the Zoroastrian wise guys, are confronted with the “uncontrollable mystery” of Christmas, where wonder and awe are bound up with fear in the presence of the holy.
Christmas represents an interruption into the fabric of human history, an “event” that leaves us wondering. No matter what you make of the rest of Christ’s life and message, the strangeness of the birth of the eternal Word on the “bestial floor” is well worth the ‘pause’ it introduces into our calendar. This time of year thus provides a unique opportunity to ponder, whether you self-identify as a Christian or not, the “uncontrollable mystery” that we encounter in unexpected times and places.