The Privilege of the Magi

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: J.C. is leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “The Color of Whiteness: Engaging White Privilege In and Through the Church .” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by J.C. Austin

One of my favorite poems that is related to Advent and Christmas is “Journey of the Magi,” by T.S. Eliot; one of my personal Christmas traditions is to read it every year about this time. I’ve always loved how, from the very beginning, Eliot relentlessly strips away the layers of sentimentality and idealization that have accrued to both this particular part of the story and, by extension, to the larger Christmas story and certainly the ways we remember and celebrate it ourselves. In the voice of one of the Magi, Eliot describes how long the journey is, how bad the weather is, how the camels were ornery and sore-footed, how the men who handled them weren’t any better, how the towns they passed through were dirty and hostile. He describes how the Magi dreamt of the privileged life they had left behind to make this journey: “There were times we regretted / the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces / and the silken girls bringing sherbet.” When they finally stagger into Bethlehem and make their way to the inn, their entire experience of the Epiphany of the Christ Child is summed up in one gloriously underwhelming line: “Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.”

The Adoration by the Magi – an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The remainder of the poem is one of the Magi reflecting on the meaning of what they saw in the Christ Child. It concludes this way:

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’ve always read that passage in relatively removed terms: the Magus realizes first that, with the birth of God Incarnate, all other kings, all other purveyors of wisdom, have been effectively cast down from their lofty places. And second, having had his epiphany, he himself no longer fits in where he once thrived; knowing the truth of God taking human form in Jesus Christ in order to save the world, he can’t return to a place that doesn’t (or perhaps just refuses to) know that truth, that clings to its idols and acts like nothing has happened, that simply rings a bell for another silken servant to bring more sherbet. The Magus knows that the days of palaces and sherbet is numbered, and yet still identifies solidly with “the old dispensation,” so that, in the end, he can only hope for the relief of death to deliver him from this limbo of unbelonging.

This year, though, it strikes me that the Magus’ response to the Epiphany of Christ is similar to the way in which most people of privilege respond to the recognition that their privilege will not or even cannot continue: with grief. When one is accustomed to a life of privilege, they inevitably grieve the loss of that privilege in some form or fashion. We are all familiar with the five stages of grief; using that framework, the Magus appears to be somewhere in a dialectic of depression and acceptance.

When it comes to us here in the time of Advent/Christmas 2017, though, the most obvious people of privilege who are in grief are those with white privilege. There are some who, like the Magus, are no longer at ease in the old dispensation, who have accepted the reality and injustice of white privilege and who are working to disrupt and dismantle it. But many, many more white people (both within the church and the larger society) are in other stages of grief: the “All Lives Matter” crowd is rooted firmly in denial; those who “agree with the cause but not the methods” of those protesting racial injustice in our society find themselves in the stage of bargaining; and the white supremacists in Charlottesville and elsewhere are clearly absorbed with the stage of anger.

And then there are those who are trapped in the stage of depression, who have realized that they no longer belong in the old dispensation, but cannot see possibilities for our church or our society beyond discord, division, and even death, just as the Magus concludes. In this season of anticipating and celebrating the Incarnation in Jesus Christ, though, it is my prayer that more and more of us will be able to push beyond depression and death not simply to acceptance, but to confidence that the birth of Christ really is an announcement of “peace among those whom God favors,” which is not white people or any other people of privilege, but rather all those who bear God’s image and follow God’s will. It is a message of life, not death, for all those with ears to hear and the wisdom to see. Losing white privilege is hardly the same thing as losing life; it is gaining life, embracing life, aligning ourselves and our society with the abundant life that Jesus can for all of us, all of us, to have. And that, truly, is an extraordinary gift of Christmas.


J.C. Austin is Designated Pastor/Head of Staff of First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Bethlehem, PA. He received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1998. After spending a year as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, he was ordained to serve as Associate Pastor for Evangelism and Stewardship at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, where he helped lead a historic but declining congregation into its first experience of significant growth in vitality, resources, and size in several decades. Following that experience, he went to Auburn Theological Seminary (also in New York City). There, he built a national reputation as an expert on innovative congregational leadership for the 21st century, conceiving and establishing a range of new initiatives to build personal resilience, entrepreneurial spirit, and practical wisdom in pastoral leaders. As a teacher and public theologian, he also developed a particular focus equipping faith leaders to disrupt racial injustice and white privilege in both church and society.

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