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.

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