As I began to think about Advent this year, my thoughts went to the Magi, the wise men, and to T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Journey of the Magi” [shared on facebook] which describes the journey which certainly took weeks if not months in harsh and primitive time:
‘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.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. 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.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
I decided that my Advent would be grounded in that journey, a rough journey braving whatever it will take to deepen my hunger for the unknown King revealed by the Star.
Simultaneously, I rediscovered John Piper’s book, A HUNGER FOR GOD, a magnificent little book on fasting by a devout Baptist pastor, which I read a couple of years ago—I determined to reread it for Advent. If I do nothing else this Advent, I want to go deeper, truly to journey deeper into God, to be plumbed to my depths by hunger for Him and to renew myself as gift and covenant with Him.
I found utterly charming, yet again, the way John Piper begins:
“Whom have I in heaven but thee?
And there is nothing upon earth
that I desire besides thee.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion for ever.
—PS A L M 7 3 : 2 5 – 2 6 , R
–Charming because it is one of my most beloved Psalm passages, and finding it at the head of the book hooked me completely.
Of all the spiritual disciplines, I find fasting the hardest—it’s so hard to give up food. Yes, I know I can fast from other things, but nothing has a hold on me the way eating does. John explains: Christian fasting, at its root, is the hunger of a homesickness for God. . . . Half of Christian fasting is that our physical appetite is lost because our homesickness for God is so intense. The other half is that our homesickness for God is threatened because our physical appetites are so intense. The only way to increase our hunger for God is to fast. Otherwise, our physical appetites deaden our delight in God.
Piper refers to the “deadening effects of innocent delights.” Because the delights of normal eating, normal sensations, other activities—all in good taste, moderation—are far from sinful, we just don’t see how they anesthetize us, reducing the “sweet longings for God.” Example: If you eat a piece of candy, full of refined sugar, then eat a piece of fruit naturally sweet and wholesome, the fruit doesn’t taste sweet because your taste buds have been corrupted by white, artificially refined sugar. So do so many “innocent delights” corrupt our appetite for God.
Then in adoration this morning, I reread a famous passage from a letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch, martyr and bishop of 110 AD:
“ I am God’s grain, and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts in order that I may be found [to be] pure bread for Christ. My love has been crucified, and there is in me no fire of material love, but rather a living water, speaking in me and saying within me, ‘Come to the Father.’ I take no pleasure in corruptible food or in the delights of this life. I want the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who is the seed of David; and for drink I want his Blood which is incorruptible love.”
This, I knew immediately, would be my touchstone. This passage is well-known by me and my Love Crucified Community. I have always thought of “Love Crucified” as Jesus Himself; love personified is Jesus—Jesus is crucified: thus Jesus is Love Crucified. But as I prayed with the passage this morning, I saw another crucial meaning here. It is MY love which must be crucified. Ignatius proclaimed “I am God’s grain, and I am being ground” [reference to his martyrdom by the tearing jaws of wild beasts]—but Jesus also told us, “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” [John 12:24].
Fasting enables us to die to self, a little at a time. And there’s no way around it; the love of God which is poured forth in my heart must be purified, crucified, mortified in death to self-love, self-indulgence, and ego that Christ might live in me. The passion and beauty of St. Ignatius is that “there is in me no fire of material love, but rather a living water speaking in me and saying, ‘Come to the Father!’”
His ecstatic exclamation tells us everything we need to know of self-denial and fasting—to taste the Father is to want nothing else. This is the depth of hunger which the saints knew, and which I am determined to know—a hunger to which all are called. I want to get to the point where I can exclaim with St. Ignatius: “I take no pleasure in corruptible food or in the delights of this life—I want the Bread of God.”
Each Magi tossed aside whatever he had known of normal life, pleasures and comforts of home and family, to endure a journey of untold privations—all for the sake of a Star which promised to give him a King to whom he could prostrate his whole heart and treasure. Was this folly? How often he must have wondered, but persisted, hoping against hope, wanting to believe despite every obstacle. This, too, is my journey this December,
Without the Holy Spirit as our Star, not one of us has a prayer of a chance to succeed in any Advent plan we may dream about. I will continue to pray this little prayer which I adapted many months ago from Father George Maloney: O Holy Spirit, in utter poverty of heart I await Your Wind, Your Fire, Your Living Water to rush upon me that I may live Christ, and Him crucified.
We carry the Star within us.