The Star of Bethlehem and the Message of the Magi

star in blue skyAs the Nativity story gets retold year after year and acted out in manger scenes across the world, the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi who saw it have fascinated adults and children alike for 2,000 years.

Astronomers since the time of Copernicus have offered different theories about the Star. It was, they say, a nova, a comet, a meteor, or a supernova. It was a completely new star or a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces. The new book Colin Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet, argues that the Star was a great comet.

The physical sciences, however, including astronomy, are notoriously incapable of explaining things that are not seen. And when it comes to the Star of Bethlehem, there is more going on than meets even the eye of the telescope. The Magi knew this.

Take a careful look at the Nativity story, in chapter two of Matthew’s Gospel. Apparently, the Star had a mind of its own. It “appeared” and “went ahead of” the Magi “until it stopped.” And it did not stop randomly anywhere; it “stopped over the place where the child was.” These facts suggest that, whatever it was, it was something other than a phenomenon governed exclusively by physical laws. To the Magi, the Star of Bethlehem must have seemed as supernatural an event as the angelic visitation announcing Jesus’ birth was to the country shepherds.

This clears up another common misunderstanding. Many people, especially astrologers, believe that the Magi were following the stars. But the Magi were not following the stars. They were following the Bible. To know where to go first, Jerusalem, the Magi relied on a prophecy found in the book of Numbers. Given hundreds of years before Christ’s birth, it predicts the advent of “a star,” which in ancient Israel was interpreted as a messianic prophecy about the divine Ruler to come.

After arriving in Jerusalem, the heart of ancient Israel’s religious life, the Magi again follow the Bible. The rabbis read from the prophet Micah to show the Magi that this Ruler Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Taking their cues again from Scripture, not from astrology, the Magi head south to Bethlehem.

After their long, arduous journey from the East, these guys must have breathed a sigh of relief to find out that they had only six more miles to go! But on the road south, they suddenly face a problem. They have the name of the city but not the address. It’s unlikely that Mary and Joseph would still have been camped out at the manger when the Magi finally arrived, months after Jesus’ birth.

But God knows Jesus’ address. Star of wonder. It “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” The Magi are overjoyed. They worship the Savior, leave their expensive gifts with the family, and, being warned by God in a dream, they do not travel home by the way they came, through Jerusalem. They return by “another way.” Their lives had been changed.

Thirty years later, Jesus is walking the roads of Judea and Galilee, healing the sick and preaching the gospel, and still most people don’t know what the Magi knew about the Jesus’ identity. If asked, most give wrong answers. So one day Jesus asks his closest followers, Guys, who do you say that I am? When Peter replies that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus explains that “flesh and blood” has not revealed that to him, “but my Father in heaven” has revealed it. And “blessed are you” because of that, Peter.

Jesus the Messiah, the Savior, has been born. That was the message of Magi to the world 2,000 years ago. It is the message of the Star of Bethlehem to us today. Flesh and blood cannot reveal it, neither can astronomy or astrology. It takes divine revelation. And once it’s yours, dear reader, blessed are you. It will change the course of your life. You will go home by another way.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

(Charles Strohmer is the author of several books, including of America’s Fascination with Astrology: Is It Healthy? This article first appeared in The Mountain Press, December 20, 2015.)

See also The Snow Forgives Us: A True Story.

Image by Riccardo Francesconi, permission via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” Whenever I publish a new post, you will then receive a very short email notice. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell some friends! Thank you.


The Artist and the Baby

baby & adult handsA young couple brought their new baby, a boy, home from the hospital. He was their second child; the other was a 4-year-old girl. After the new baby had been home for a couple of weeks, the 4-year-old told her parents that she wanted to see the baby alone.

“Okay,” said the mother, “I’ll take you to see him.”

“No,” said the little girl. “I want to see him alone.”

The parents looked at one another. They had been warned of this. The older child gets jealous of the attention being paid to the baby and finds a way to strike back.

“I’ll take you in to see him,” said the father.

“Nooo. I want to see him alone!”

“Well, maybe later,” the mother said.

The next day, the mother started to take her daughter to see the baby, but the child pulled back, refusing, saying she would only see the baby alone. This went on for two weeks. Finally one evening, the parents made the momentous decision. They did not tell their daughter, but they would listen closely on the intercom while she was in the room with the baby, and they would be ready to act immediately if necessary.

“Promise you won’t come in,” the daughter said.

“We promise,” said the parents.

The little girl stepped cautiously into the baby’s room, looking back at her parents, who watched attentively from the hall. They quietly shut the door and quickly retreated to their bedroom, where they fixed their ears on the intercom. They heard nothing for a few seconds. Then there was the soft noise of their daughter making her way toward the baby in the crib. Then silence. There was a small chair in the baby’s room, and the parents heard what they took to be the sound of their daughter moving the chair to the side of the crib. And then silence.

The parents didn’t see their daughter sit down in that chair next to the crib. But they did hear her say to the baby, “Tell me about God. I’m forgetting.”

The artist is like the baby.

(I heard Sean Penn tell this story to Charlie Rose on the “The Charlie Rose Show,” PBS-TV.)

Image permission via Creative Commons.

Too Much

 pen, poem, and ink

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…”

William Wordsworth’s opening complaint in his poem,
The World Is Too Much With Us.

Image by Jonathan Blocker, permission via Creative Commons.

Junkyard Evolution and the Logic of Violence

explosion of paintPeople are not stupid. In their own ways and in their own words, they want to know what philosophers and theologians call the ultimate meaning or significance of life, and of their own lives especially. What is the basic meaning of life? What is the sense of it all? “What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?”

Something deep inside of us says that our ultimate meaning and significance is found in God. Problem is, belief in God has been made passé and embarrassing through education and science. Especially science, with its Big Bang theory of beginnings – the universe began with an initial terrific explosion billions of years ago.

As I say, people are not stupid. Having pledged allegiance to the Explosion for decades, they have a sneaking suspicion that their reliance on the theory for ultimate meaning has left them feeling pretty insignificant. Many such people, however, have nevertheless created fairly meaningful and significant lives for themselves anyway, as moral and upright human beings, and thank God for that. But the “Aha!” moment of meaning and significance eludes them still.

Yet it seems to me that in our day an increasing number of people are saying, well, the hell with it then, if my life is meaningless, I might as well go out the way I came in, with a bang, and take as many persons with me as I can. I’m now calling this the logic of violence, and I have begun to wonder if it is increasing in the land as Explosion Theory gets further imprinted onto our communal DNA.

You tell me. Here’s an idea I’m toying with. Physicists and other scientists today work with the belief that the distribution of matter-energy throughout the universe can be accounted for by rigid laws of mechanical causes and effects (sans any reliance on a personal creator God). Swell, okay. There certainly are such laws, and without science’s guiding hand applying them we would not enjoy the comforts and conveniences of modern life (of course, we would not cringe before the threat of nukes and other WMD either).


The thing is, if the Big Bang is accepted in the place of a personal creator God as originator of the universe, the only way in which the laws of causes and effects could ultimately be explained is in terms of explosions: as laws the results of which are entirely random. In other words, the physical laws are what they are because, well, that’s how the explosion happened. The incredibility of this has been described as being like a tornado hurtling through a junkyard and leaving behind in its wake a fully assembled 747 ready to fly.

This power of a theory to shape and change a society’s perception of life is also clear when we  consider a parallel ultimate understanding: the evolutionary account that life began as basic molecular formations developed as the result of uncountable millions of transformations in a primordial cosmic soup. The odds against such an event, including subsequent events producing human beings, have been reckoned as one in a number greater than all the calculated atoms in the universe. All that can ultimately be said about it is that it happened, that human beings are the result of an incredible jackpot in a cosmic slot machine. Never mind. Viola! Now put the pilots and crew in the 747! And take off.

Because neither the Big Bang nor the Cosmic Soup can be proved in the way science demands, both theories of origins must be taken on faith. Over time, when ultimate faith beliefs in these theories are combined with similar notions in other areas of life, especially moral law, any ultimate significance to your life or my life slowly but inevitably fades to black. Life becomes meaning-less. No ultimate reason any longer exists for human beings to direct their lives in one way rather than another, or another, or another, no matter how morally irresponsible that way is. If family or society does not work for us, then something new can only be created by a mindless risk, a schoolyard massacre, a bloody revolution, another explosion, and then another, and then another.

A Christian vision of life opposes that. It does not deny the validity of physical laws or a scientific explanation. It denies that the laws or the scientific explanations – even all of them put together – can ever provide ultimate meaning or significance to one’s life. It maintains that to do so would be what the Bible calls idolatry.

Whatever formulae may be found to express our perception of how things are what they are, a Christian vision insists that behind that is a personal God with a will and a purpose. That Someone is our significance – Someone by whose wisdom, the Bible explains, the world was founded – Someone who relates to the creation and to us knowably on a personal level through Jesus Christ the Lord. That Someone created us and is the Source of the physical and moral laws that make us who we are. There is nothing random about it, any more than there is about how your house was built or about the laws that the courts enforce.

In the wisdom of the West, the natural sciences have gained such a high status in our communal thinking that the simple fact of its limits easily gets forgotten, and the result is serious. When there is no personal creator God at home in the universe who can be prayed to for forgiveness, mercy, and help in our time of need, life becomes meaningless in the long run, the logic of violence spreads, and we are without hope, in this world and in the next.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images: Explosion of Paint, by markcharwickart; and Junkyard, by construct. Permissions via Creative Commons.

This article was inspired by an idea in chapter 23 of Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” Whenever I publish a new post, you will then receive a very short email notice. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell some friends! Thank you.