Stories about the magi and the star of Bethlehem (Matthew’s Gospel, chapter two) have fascinated people for two thousand years. Theories have abounded since the rise of modern astronomy in the seventeenth century. It was a very bright light – a supernova, or a comet, or a meteor, or a rare conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces. Whatever it was, the magi saw an unusual heavenly phenomena and interpreted it to mean that Jesus Christ, the King of the Jews, had been born.
Is it just me, or does there seem to be more interest in the star this year than ever before? There are even some documentaries on the Web making the rounds, dedicated to the “science” of the star. Speaking of which, I just read a news story in Christianity Today (Dec. 2014) about yet another astronomer, Michael Molnar, who claims to have really figured it out. Molnar is also a coin collector who had only a mild interest in the star until he was investigating the symbolism of an ancient coin he had purchased, minted in Antioch in the early first century.
After sussing the coin’s symbolism, Molar had a hunch that a serious rethink was needed about the star of Bethlehem. The research then spun him off into both the astronomical and the astrological heavens, where the star, it seemed to him, was not any sort of bright heavenly light or a conjunction of planets. Instead, it was a much more modest phenomenon, albeit a rare one: The moon, viewed from Earth, was passing in front of Jupiter in the astrological sign of Aries. Molnar concluded that the magi, upon seeing that and knowing that Jupiter symbolized royalty, and knowing Micah 5:2 – out of Bethlehem a ruler of Israel will come – pulled all these threads together to mean the birth of Christ, the king of the Jews. They then set out on their arduous journey, far from Jerusalem, to worship him.
I’m not knocking astronomical theories. After all, it is the job of astronomers to investigate heavenly phenomenon; someday a consensus may emerge on the science of the star of Bethlehem. Who knows? But even if that consensus is reached, it will not be the science that accounts for the experience and actions of the magi. Science cannot account for the “Aha!” moment of divine revelation that awakens a person to the recognition of who Jesus Christ is.
Even the best of science will leave us at sixes and sevens about Jesus’ identity. Even when Jesus himself was present on earth – when he was heard, seen, and touched – when his doctor could examine him – even that to-hand physicality was not what revealed his identity, about which all sorts of views abounded. Who do people say that I am?, Jesus once asked his disciples. Some say you’re John the Baptist, they said. Some say Elijah. Others say Jeremiah or another prophet. Ask people today and they will say he was a good man, or a wise man, or a teacher, or a healer and miracle worker.
“But what about you?” Jesus asked them. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter, having one of his better days, answered: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:15-17).
It was this divine revelation about Christ’s identity to the magi that explains their experience and actions upon seeing the “star of Bethlehem.” Divine revelation was part of the mix. Apart from that, the star, or whatever it was, would certainly have been a fascinating phenomenon to the magi, but no way do they make the arduous journey hundreds of miles to Jerusalem to worship Christ (Matthew 2:2).
It takes that revelation of God to worship Christ the King, as people have discovered for themselves down through the centuries in countlessly varied contexts in which the physical science is secondary. Rabbi Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus. St. Augustine, in a garden in Milan. John Wesley, in a church meeting in Aldersgate. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, while imprisoned in the Gulag. C. S. Lewis, in his digs at Magdalen College. Mine, in a hotel room in southern California.
Where are you, physically, today, in this season of the star? Worshiping Christ the King or unsure of his identity? If the latter, the experience and actions of the magi awaits you through faith. I invite you to pray for that divine revelation.
Concluded in the next post
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Image by withrow & Riccardo Francesconi respectively (permission via Creative Commons)