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Magus 1990

January 7, 2013

The point of this post is to publish the poem of a dear friend. But first, some context.

There seems to be a small debate going on among my clergy friends right now about whether to observe Epiphany as a day or as a season. As a day, Epiphany marks the arrival of the magi to honor the baby Jesus. Many of us had processions in our congregations yesterday, and we sang of “We Three Kings” who come “From a Distant Home.” In White Plains, where I live, a local Catholic ministry called El Centro Hispano had a large “Three Kings Day” party with gifts for all the children. In fact, in many parts of the world, the Day of Epiphany is a larger holiday than Christmas.

As a season, however, Epiphany is a time in which the identity of Jesus becomes clear and clearer to all those who will look and see. But few of us mark this season liturgically. Though the lectionary provides a rich selection of scripture to tell a story of a gathering of witnesses to Jesus special identity, the Presbyterian Planning Calendar would have us change our colors to green and call this simply Ordinary Time. (I have, in the past, described the color green during Epiphany as the color of growth; but since green is also the color of ordinary time, for the same reason, the special identity of Epiphany is easily lost).

We miss something important if we see the time between Christmas and Lent as full of “nothing special.” Transfiguration is not only the prefiguration of Lent but the culmination of Epiphany. So in my congregation our paraments will remain white until Ash Wednesday, and I wear a blue stole (the color of baptismal water).

If you participate in a worshipping Christian community, I would love to hear how you mark Epiphany?  Do you mark it as a day; a season; both?

Now the poem.

Clifford E. Swartz was a legendary physics professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island. To many he was a scientist, teacher, and a gifted writer with a knack for explaining complicated concepts in way any child could grasp. But to me, he was a parishioner and a friend.

Cliff was also a keen observer of life, which is demonstrated in the poems and plays he wrote throughout his life. Almost all of them were read or performed at the Setauket Presbyterian Church, where I served for fifteen years, and many were keen observations on our life together.


Cliff’s poem, titled Magus, reflects our weary return to rituals of the year, which yet have the capacity to open us again to the wonder of life. The copy I have is in a manuscript Cliff gave me while he was preparing it for publication. The poem is called “Magus 1990,” though when it was finally published it appeared as “Magus 2000”. It appeared in a collection of his Christmas Poems called Miracles – and Other Matters (Trafford Publishing, 2006), published just before Cliff’s death. I thank his daughter Tammy for permitting me to publish it here.

May this poem help you be open to the miracle of this season, as who Jesus is becomes clear and clearer to all of us.


Magus 1990, Clifford E. Swartz

I almost didn’t go this year.

It always comes at the wrong time,

With the students still here,

And one conference after another.

If it hadn’t been for Balthazar,

I would have stayed home.

But he’s getting on in years,

And I hate to disappoint him.

“It’s tradition,” he said.

“They expect us, you know,

And if we didn’t come,

It wouldn’t be the same.”

Of course it’s not like it used to be

Before the TV and the planes.

I remember when Eliot led the tour,

With his refractory camels,

And conditions, as he might say,

Satisfactory. No, now we can

Pack up and be there the same day.

We stay at the Bethlehem Hilton,

Some distance from the stable,

As you can imagine,

But within easy reach by car.

Who go through this annual ritual?

The angel choirs still need rehearsing,

And the shepherds seem to lose their zest,

Though they were always out of character,

Trying too hard to be bucolic.

As usual, Joseph seems bewildered

In a role that was never clear.

It’s Mary that I come to see,

Exhausted, shy, and yet triumphant.

The creator, in human form.

Out of love she had begotten

Intelligence and comprehension,

Hunger and satisfaction,

Hatred and pity.

All the human passions, successes and failures.

Her love cries and she feeds it.

It was an ordinary birth,

Which we celebrate in honor

Of all new births, all new creations,

All new chances to begin again.

Once I saw a star explode

Where none had been before.

It was an old star, dying, and in its death

Gave life to planets yet unborn.

In our line of work, we live in mystery,

Hoping for revelation.

So I will go again to Bethlehem,

And kneel and celebrate

With shepherds and with kings.


I would encourage you to seek out more of Cliff’s poetry, as well as his plays. Many of his collections are readily available through If you do, please consider getting to the amazon webpage through my congregation’s website – a portion of your purchase will then support the mission and ministry of the vibrant, multicultural Christian community I now serve.

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