Another Christmas has come and gone. How was it for you this year? Mine was lovely. I spent the week with my in-laws in Ohio and then went to my college roommate’s wedding. I noticed about a thousand things this week that I wanted to write about, but one topic stuck with me more steadfastly than the others. If you’ve been around Christmas before, then you’ve seen something like the picture above. There is the unassuming little house where Jesus is sleeping with an ENORMOUS star hovering just overhead like the glowing jewels over the characters in the Sims. The Magi followed that ridiculously large star from some mystical land in the “Orient” until it hovered over the place where Jesus was born.
Where to start… Where to start…
This picture always bothered me a little. If the star was that obvious, why did no one else notice it? It is not as if they were living in 2011 where we can see only a handful of stars at night. They could see the entire expanse of stars and they knew them well. If the star were really that obvious, then hundreds of people would have come to offer Jesus gifts and Herod would have had no trouble at all finding and killing the baby Jesus. The Gospels would be significantly shorter and the Christmas season would be a lot less festive. Also, stars don’t hover over houses. Stars move in predictable, circular paths. The planets are a little more unpredictable and that’s actually what their name means. It is Greek for “wanderers” because they follow their own set of rules as to how they look from night to night from Earth. No matter what it was, the only star that does not move in the Northern Sky is Polaris, but the only time it would be directly overhead would be at the North Pole. Unless Jesus was actually Santa Claus, that doesn’t work either (although it would definitely consolidate the holiday). The way we talk about the star it sounds more like some kind of glowing flying saucer than a star, and because extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, let’s set that interpretation aside for now.
The story takes place in Matthew 2, and hopefully this retelling will help to shed some light on what was happening and illuminate the true and wonderful miracle that took place…
Around the time of Abraham, there was a man named Zoroaster in what is now Iran. He received a number of revelations that eventually became a religion called Zoroastrianism. While the Israelites were still figuring out who they were as a people, the Zoroastrians had a complex angelology and demonology. They had end-time prophecies, a fiery lake for damned souls, scriptures, and the promise of a virgin-born savior that would save humanity. Many of their beliefs mixed with Jewish thought during the exile and the Jews who returned to Judah had a noticeably Zoroastrian tint.
I’ll get into all of that in a later post because it is worthy of some real attention.
The influence went two ways though. In Daniel 2:48, it states that after Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he placed him in charge of all of the Magi. The Magi were a clan of Zoroastrian priests/astrologers who were world-renown for their ability to read the future in the stars and interpret dreams. This was also about the time that Isaiah and Jeremiah were writing about the savior of Israel that would one day come and Messiah fever was beginning to rise in the Jewish people. Perhaps Daniel, who was also skilled at interpreting dreams, injected some messianic predictions into the collective consciousness of the Magi 500 years before Jesus was born.
The text in Matthew says that the Magi saw the star when it rose. We know that there were a number of interesting alignments with Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and Uranus within a few years of when Jesus was probably born. Halley’s comet was visible in 12 BC, but comets were seen as an omen, so that’s probably not what happened. What most likely happened was that there was an alignment of planets within the constellation that represented Judah. Ancient astrologers often read signs like this, and a rare alignment of the planets within such a constellation would no doubt raise excitement in the minds of people who have been waiting for a mighty king to arise from Judah for 500 years. I’ll bet that they were hoping he would take care of the Romans too. Those Romans were jerks.
So they got together expensive gifts and headed to the palace because that’s where kings are born. Imagine their surprise when they ended up finding him in a peasant’s house with poor teenagers for parents. Afterwards, they were warned in a dream to go home a different way so that Herod would not kill the baby.
That’s the story.
Here’s what I love about it…
God used the stars to talk to a group of pagan astrologers and tell them about His son. He then used dreams to warn them of danger. How crazy is that?! How many times have you heard a pastor talk about how God used astrology to spread the Gospel? If Jesus were born today, you would expect to see a group of fortune tellers and witches as the first ones at the door. That’s right. Even before he told the priests and faithful God-fearing Jews, he used outlawed, occultic practices to announce the birth of His son to a bunch of foreigners. I believe that most astrology is bogus and harmful because people base important decisions on faulty information and do not trust in the good sense that God gave them. That being said, God spoke into it and gave it meaning. He plugged it into the real power source and showed them the Truth. I wonder what they did when they got home. I can’t imagine that they all converted to Judaism. Why did God do that? What purpose did it serve? Was it just for them, was it for Mary and Joseph, was it for us, or was it just because He wanted to do it? Whatever the reason for doing it, I cannot help but be filled with the conviction that this is bigger than any of us. The airwaves are filled with this ridiculous “War on Christmas” with people trying to decide who is doing Christmas correctly and who is a godless pagan. Meanwhile, the God whom the holiday is about used astrology and dreams to bring those very outsiders into the inner circle. When I think about this story, I cannot help but feel like God is less concerned about which religious group has the right answers than we are. It is just a hunch, but I think that God is bigger than this.