‘Death’ was the last word of the reading. The sound of the word hung in the air of the Church as the reverberation slowly faded. It was not the most festive of moments in the School of Medicine Carol Service.
The reading was ‘The Journey of the Magi’ by TS Eliot and was followed quite merrily and naturally by the choir singing ‘We three kings’. A month before it had been an easy decision to put the Eliot poem into the service. It came after the reading from Matthew’s gospel telling of the wise men who follow a star looking for a newly born child destined to become and king. They bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But as the sound of the word slowly dissolved into the space of the building I really though that this was just too serious and heavy for an end of term Carol Service.
Most of the poem deals with the troubles of the journey, ill camels, expensive food, hostility towards the travellers and the bad winter weather. The last lines ask what exactly they were seeing when they found the new born child in a stable ‘Was it a birth or a death?’
It is a poem that acts out the Christian idea of the deep truth of God being revealed or becoming visible. The gifts include myrrh, the substance used for anointing and embalming a body after death. There is a heavy symbolism in the birthday gifts that really point towards the end of Jesus’ life.
Of course a congregation comprised of medical students and teachers is going to be more familiar than most with moving frequently from moments of birth to moments of death. It is an unsual sample of the 18-25 population where most of the 300 people attending have been present at a number of births and deaths. And afterwards in the catching up over mince pies and mulled wine I heard two stories from students sharing very recent hospital experiences of patients dying. In Holy Trinity Church where we held the service there is a carved screen above the altar. In the lower part is a small nativity scene. Standing high above it is the main piece – a crucifixion. A 3 D version of Eliot’s poem and a faint reference to the experiences of medical students?
The full text of the Eliot poem and a recording can be found at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7070