Star of wonder

What was that star of wonder, star so bright? Who were those magi who followed it? Where did they expect it to lead them? These are among the questions we’ll pursue as we look at this ancient tale of international intrigue, murder and a small but significant refugee crisis.

I warn you, this message has too many moving parts, and we will follow that star by way of several rabbit trails, so hang on.

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a star! It’s a planet! It’s – well, what was thing in the sky, anyway? Over the years, commentators have suggested that it was a meteor, or a comet, or a supernova – the explosion of a distant star – or perhaps a special conjunction of planets.

Planets? Doesn’t the text say “star”? Well, the ancients were no dummies. They knew the difference between a star and a planet. But, just like us, when they looked up, they saw stars. They were more precise about what they saw only when they needed to be.

Hundreds of attempts have been made to identify the star of Bethlehem. With the aid of computers, we can now produce precise charts of celestial objects at any place on earth at any hour in the last few thousand years. But our calculations lack one key variable: the date of Jesus’ birth.

In the year we know as A.D 525, a solution was proposed by mathematically minded historian in Rome named Dennis the Short. Dennis devised a system for placing Christ at the center of human history. He divided time into two eras: BC, for Before Christ, and AD, for Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord. Dennis announced that Jesus was born on Dec. 25, 1 B.C., just a few days before the calendar flipped to A.D. 1. (Notice that there is no zero in between.)

Problem is, it appeared that Dennis miscalculated. According to his system, it looked like Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., nearly four years before Jesus was born, though obviously he was very much alive when Jesus was born.

Johannes Kepler, the great mathematician and astronomer, then calculated that Jesus was born in 7 B.C. during a rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Kepler’s conclusion was widely accepted for 400 years. But in the last few years new evidence has emerged. It now appears that Dennis got it right, after all. Herod didn’t die in 4 B.C. but rather in the spring of A.D.1, several months after Jesus was born.

Star gazers are still searching their star charts in light of the latest data, and the identity of that bright object in the sky remains a mystery. Does it matter in the great scheme of things? Probably not.

On the other hand … any science fiction fans among you? I refer you to a short story titled “The Star.” It was written in 1954 by Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, among many other works. “The Star” is one of the most famous and finest science fiction stories ever written. Reading it will cure you of the need to speculate about the identity of the Star of Bethlehem.

Sometime before the birth of Jesus, on or about Dec. 25, 1 B.C., the star is observed by magi in Persia. They interpret it to mean that a new king will be born in Judea. Why they interpret it so we cannot say. But off they go to find this baby king.

Dispelling the legends is important here. These were not kings, for one thing. For another, we don’t know how many of them there were. We only guess that there were three because they gave three gifts to the baby – gifts that were, indeed, fit for a king: gold and two kinds of costly aromatic spices.

For a long time, we’ve called them “wise men,” but I prefer to call them “magi,” because that’s what the gospel of Matthew actually calls them. They were astrologers, star gazers, magicians. They may have been valued as advisors in some royal court, or perhaps were considered court clowns.

They were wise in that they correctly interpreted the sign they saw in the sky. But they were not wise in other ways. By blundering into Jerusalem the way they did, they almost got baby Jesus killed.

Herod is called Herod the Great primarily to distinguish him from several of his sons who also were named Herod but were by no means great. Herod was a great builder. Two thousand years later, several of his monumental constructions still stand. But he was obsessively jealous of his power and viciously protective of it.

If we were to continue reading Matthew’s account, we would learn that Herod becomes enraged when the magi don’t report back to him, and he sends soldiers to kill all the young boys in and around Bethlehem. He wants to make sure this newborn king doesn’t live long enough to threaten his rule.

Outside of Matthew there is no historical record of this massacre, so some commentators doubt that it happened. But it so fits the pattern of Herod’s cruelty that we have no reason to discount it. After all, this is the man who wanted his soldiers to slay thousands of innocent people after he died so that history would record that there was great mourning at his death. Happily, that order was not carried out.

The story of the magi raises several questions.

One: Why are they apparently the only ones in the world who see the star and interpret it correctly? Why, for instance, didn’t somebody in Herod’s court notice it? Predicting the future through astrology was forbidden in Israel, but Jews did observe the skies carefully – not for signs that something would happen, but for signs that something had happened. How did they miss this? Maybe they just didn’t care.

That may also be the best answer for question two. After telling Herod that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, why don’t the wise men of Israel immediately head for Bethlehem to greet him?

Don’t they believe their own interpretation of prophecy? Are they so jaded that they don’t believe God could do a great thing in their lifetime? Or are they just scared of what Herod might do? Are they afraid that if they start the parade to Bethlehem, Herod’s soldiers won’t be far behind?

Question three: Knowing that the king will be born in Bethlehem, why does Herod wait for the magi to lead him there? Why doesn’t he just send his soldiers now and get it over with?

Well, maybe he’s just trying to be crafty. Maybe he thinks that if he can identify this child, he can simply make him disappear, along with his parents and any other unfortunate witnesses. If he’s careful, hardly anyone will know what happened.

It all blows up, though, when the magi are warned in a dream and finally do something wise. They get out of town as fast as they can. Also warned in a dream, Joseph and Mary evacuate with the infant Jesus. They head southwest, to get out of Herod’s kingdom as quickly as possible, and seek refuge in Egypt.

Yes, our holy family are refugees. Those expensive gifts from the magi must come in handy on the long journey. Happily, there’s a large Jewish colony in Egypt where they can blend in and hide for awhile.

But what about those they leave behind in Bethlehem? It’s Joseph’s hometown, after all. Do they warn others on their way out of town, or leave the young boys to Herod’s wrath? And will Herod’s soldiers bother to distinguish whether they are killing boys or girls, or just kill children willy-nilly?

There are so many things about this story that we want to know and have no way of knowing. So we fill the gaps with legends about Gaspar and Melchior and Balthasar, and how they represent three races and three great civilizations, and about how there was a fourth magi who got sidetracked on the way, and an old woman named Befana who is still following that star, looking for that baby.

There’s also some clever speculation about the Wise Women – you know, the wives of the three Wise Men. According to this cartoon image, they follow the men and provide more useful gifts to baby Jesus and his family – fresh diapers, casseroles and lots of baby formula.

More than 20 years ago, our daughter Jennifer played a small role in a production of Conrad Susa’s opera “The Wise Women.” This was staged by the now defunct Civic Opera Theater of Kansas City. In this version, the wise women never get to Bethlehem. Instead, they are offered a private vision of the holy family.

We tell ourselves such stories because we believe that despite the actions of Herod and others like him, news of this baby’s birth does get announced to the world. People are told of Messiah’s birth. Lives are changed by this news.

We can’t know how the lives of the magi are changed. We only know that they return home, as Matthew tells us, “by another way.” It’s been suggested, of course, that after encountering Jesus we all must go by another way than we came. We all must go by the way of Jesus, as it is described in the gospels and the book of Acts.

These magi saw a sign in the sky, and they went looking. International travel was expensive and hazardous in those days. They searched at great personal cost, possibly at great peril. Because they weren’t nearly as wise as they thought they were, they got entangled in an evil monarch’s evil scheme. Sometimes our search gets off track, too. We think we’re following the light and end up being used or abused by evil. No one ever said that following Jesus doesn’t have distracting detours.

The star on the cover of our bulletin is an image I borrowed from the website of the Moravian Church of North America. Moravians and Methodists go way back, to the earliest days of the Methodist movement, when a young and confused John Wesley was mentored by Peter Bohler and others from the Moravian movement. We still have much in common.

The Moravian star normally has 26 points. Linda and I have a fairly large star that’s part of our outdoor light display. The star is supposed to stay up from the first Sunday of Advent until the day of Epiphany, which is officially tomorrow. So tomorrow our star will come down.

It’s OK. We talk about following the Star of Bethlehem, but if you read the story carefully, you’ll see that the magi actually follow the star only for a short distance at the end of their journey. It’s the meaning of the star that they pursue all the long way from Persia to Israel. Only briefly do they follow a light in the sky. Mostly, they follow what it means.

Similarly, we don’t follow a star. We follow the person to whom the star points. We follow Jesus, and we walk the Way of Jesus. The season of Christmas is almost over. Epiphany is dawning. Now we’ll see what the holy birth means to us.

So we’ve arrived, rabbit trails and all, at our true destination!

“Star of wonder” is a message delivered on Epiphany Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church by the Rev. James Hopwood. The text was Matthew 2:1-12.

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