Advent: Star Trek

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him (Matthew 2.1-13).

Three Wise Men from the East (5th to early-6th centuries) mosaic, Basilica of St Apollinare-Nuovo, Italy (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The wise men are at the heart of the Christmas mystery. However, we know tantalisingly little about them. Matthew’s account records only that they were wise, men, more than one in number, and travelled from the place where the sun rose (which is what the New Testament Greek word for ‘east’ means). The Gospel doesn’t say that they were kings, or tell us their names, or describe them as a trio, or indicate that each offered one of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (or what those gifts signified, for that matter), or that they encountered the baby Jesus in the stable, along with the shepherds on his birth night.

The New Testament Greek word for wise men is magos. At the time, it implied someone — an astrologer-priest, possibly — who was cultivated, and had a reputation for astronomy and astrology. In other words, they were skilled in the study and interpretation of the heavens. The magi noticed a star where there oughtn’t to have been one. The timing and appearance of such a phenomenon was always considered auspicious and, often, to signal the birth of a great leader.

We don’t know what process of divination the wise men deployed into order to interpret the star’s significance. They definitely didn’t search the Scripture and find guidance. No star is mentioned in the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah’s birth. (The heavenly light was an example of God working in the here and now, and beyond the margins of the prophetic page. Doing the unexpected.) Did they see the star and search their religious database (as it were) for a notable, but as yet unfulfilled, birthday? Perhaps, also, God intervened and enlightened their understanding. Certainly, later on, he would come to the wise men in a dream with a warning not to return to that paranoid despot, King Herod. By the time they’d reached Herod, the ‘who’ of their quest had been identified. They were searching for the King of the Jews. But they knew not where he was.

Survey of Palestine, ‘Old City of Jerusalem’ (1936) engraving (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

It’s unlikely that the wise men travelled from their own country following the star. Anyone seeking this new-born king would head in one direction only: to Jerusalem, where Herod held court. There were well-trodden trade routes from the east to that city. So, they didn’t need a supernatural GPS signal in the sky when the way was obvious. (Why ask God for guidance when he’s already given you a map?) However, the star did proceed before them, but only after their audience with Herod: ‘And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them … and when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy’.

This suggests that the star they’d seen in the eastern sky above their own country had disappeared and afterwards reappeared, just when the wise men needed it. (Not before. Not too late.) Herod, for his part, had gathered together (under duress) the Jewish high priests and scribes who, knowing the scriptures, discerned that Bethlehem was where the new king had been born. However, this was a busy and bitty market town; locating the holy family would be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Herod’s tomb (39 AD), Israel Museum (2013) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The star ‘came and stood over where the young child was’. How they discerned what specific location on the ground the stationary object in the night sky pointed to isn’t disclosed. Perhaps their calculation was made using an instrument of celestial navigation, like a sextant. For sure, the star had come to rest above a ‘young child’, rather than a babe. Which is why Herod’s commission of the most appalling and systematic act of state-sponsored child abuse in recorded history was aimed at males up to two years of age. Therefore, whenever the wise men had turned up at his palace, it was some considerable time after Christ’s birth. And, equally certain, Jesus and his mother were now living in a house, not a stable. When the wise men entered, they prostrated themselves in worship and presented their gifts to this young child – the Governor of his people. Mission accomplished. But what had been the purpose of their visit?

When, earlier on the timeline, the shepherds had descended from the hillside to visit the stable, it was in order to see for themselves a ‘sign’ – a ‘babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger’: proof that ‘a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’, had been born, just as the company of angels had said. The shepherds purpose was to tell, first, Mary and, then, anyone who’d listen (and also those who wouldn’t, one imagines) what they’d heard from heaven about him. They were the first evangelists, in this respect. But when the wise men came to the young child, it wasn’t to confirm his identity as Saviour but, rather, to recognise his authority as king.

‘The Three Wise Kings’, Atlas Catalan, Fol. V (1375) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The shepherds were local, working-class Judeans. The wise men were well-educated foreigners. Their presence at the feet of the Christ child was as representatives of a far broader and more remote constituency of worshippers, beyond the fold of Israel – people like us, who God would draw to his Son in the millennia ahead.

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