"Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For
we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him
Star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light. (1)
The annual observance of the birth of our Savior is almost
over - Epiphany, recalling the visit of the Wise Men is
commemorated this week, January 6, and ends the liturgical
celebration, following the "Twelve Days of Christmas." No gifts
of turtle doves, French hens or partridges in pear trees; rather
the more traditional gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Lots of legends have grown up around this story of the Three
Kings, one of which is that they were "three kings." The gospel
account does not say there were three of them...or five or ten or
thirty. The idea of THREE KINGS came when the three gifts were
given - one each. (Some wag has suggested that there were
actually FOUR kings, but the fourth one's gift was a fruitcake,
so he was not allowed in.) Really? We have absolutely no idea.
Speaking of kings, the scripture calls them "Magi" which
translators have rendered "wise men" or "astrologers." The warm
and fuzzy interpretation of the story offers these visitors as
paradigms of faith in search of the divine. But the truth is, in
the days of Jesus, these folks were thought of as glorified
fortune-tellers. Our English words "magic" and "magician" come
from this word "magi." They were not so much respectable "wise
men" or "kings" but horoscope followers, a practice condemned by
Jewish tradition. Some have compared them to folks on the
Psychic Friends Network or other "occupations" that foretell the
future by stars, tea leaves, Tarot cards, etc. One writer
describes them this way: "The Magi would thus represent, to the
early Jewish reader, the epitome of Gentile idolatry and
religious hocus-pocus - dabblers in chicken gizzards, forever
trotting off here or there in search of some key to the future." (2)
We run into the word again in Acts 13 when Barnabas and Paul
come to Paphos and there meet Elymas, a Jewish Magus (the
singular of Magi). This is how Paul describes him: "You son of
the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and
villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of
the Lord?" (3)
You are beginning to get the idea. The Magi of our story
were not "wise men." They were not models of religious piety.
They were pseudo-scientists, astrologers, fortune-tellers,
horoscope fanatics, heretics even. The Magi should not be there.
But they are.
And what about that star? Astronomers, theologians and
historians for hundreds of years have been trying to determine
exactly which star might have inspired the biblical writing.
There are two general theories: those who believe the star was
made especially for that first Christmas: Poof! A Star! Others
have been convinced that there was a very special juxtaposition
of heavenly bodies to produce a spectacular unique brilliance,
never seen before or since. In 1604 German astronomer Johannes
Kepler proposed that the star was a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter
and Saturn in 7 B.C. Possible.
A more recent conjecture has come from a Notre Dame
astrophysicist, Dr. Grant Mathews. (4) The professor says that he
had hoped the answer would be something spectacular like a
supernova. But two years of research led him to a more ordinary
conclusion - the heavenly sign around the time of the birth of
Jesus Christ was likely an unusual alignment of planets, the sun
and the moon. Mathews made use of the databases of NASA; he
says, "In principle, we can see any star that was ever made from
the beginning of time if we knew where to look. So the question
is, could we find a star that could be a good candidate for what
showed up then?"
He began by posing three questions he would ask when trying
to find the answer to any astronomical event: When did it occur?
What were its characteristics? Did anyone else see it? After
beaucoodles of calculations Dr. Mathews concluded that the
phenomenon was not a supernova or a comet because the ancient
astrologers and fortune-tellers would have thought of something
such as that as a bad omen, a sign of disaster, not a portent of
good things to come. For that reason, he believes the Christmas
star is probably an alignment of planets, the most likely of
which would have occurred on April 17, 6 B.C., when the sun,
Jupiter, the moon and Saturn aligned in the constellation Aries
while Venus and Mars were in neighboring constellations. He
makes that conclusion because he believes the Magi were
Zoroastrian astrologers who would have recognized the planetary
alignment in Aries as a sign that a powerful leader was born.
"In fact it would have even meant that (the leader was) destined
to die at an appointed time." Hmm.
So, is that the answer? We have no idea. As Professor
Mathews says, "There are plenty of strong opinions out there. I
think this is as good as you can do for now."
This brief story has been described as the entire gospel
crammed into a few short paragraphs. I prefer to call it simply
the gospel by starlight. It begins with God getting the
attention of people who would not be likely candidates to become
models of faith. God uses something within their own unique
frame of reference - planetary alignment - to make them take
notice. They are led across a vast geographical expanse by an
ancient forerunner of GPS navigation technology. They learn
quickly that generally accepted societal pecking orders (kings on
top, everyone else in a descending scale underneath) are no
longer operative. They meet the divine in the form of a young
child - Epiphany (which is not only the name of a date on the
liturgical calendar; it means literally an appearance of God) -
and they bring something of themselves in worship - gold,
frankincense and myrrh. And that makes a difference - it brings
changes; they went home "by another road." The gospel by
How does that play out today? Does God still beckon to
people, even some who might be thought of as surprising? Does
God still use the events and activities of people's lives to
attract attention? Does God still guide? Are divine priorities
as different from society's today as they were back then? Do we
still meet God in Jesus? Are we still called to worship? Are we
still changed? The gospel by starlight.
Think about it as you come to the Table.
1. John Henry Hopkins, "We Three Kings of Orient Are," 1857
2. Brian Stoffregen, "Gospel Notes for this Sunday," via Ecunet, #14225, 12/30/07
3. Acts 13:10
4. Tom Coyne, "Notre Dame astrophysicist has theories on star of Bethlehem," Associated