Crib scene with the wise menCrib scene

Every Christmas or Epiphany, there seems to be a story somewhere about the star of Bethlehem. One I saw this year was from the Sky at Night. I always find this somewhat bemusing. It’s not just that I think Matthew the storyteller may be doing something different from simple historical narration (though I do). It’s that the star behaves exceedingly strangely as the story progresses.

The opening part of the narrative seems to work with the idea of the wise men, magi, as astrologers: gifted readers of the heavens, and interpreters of how heavenly happenings correspond to events on earth.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, [or in the East] and have come to pay him homage.”

Matt 2:1-2

Here, it seems, is the observation of some kind of astronomical event, and the basis for all those speculative news stories about comets. planetary conjunctions, supernovae and the like. But this is not the only way Matthew describes the star.

But first there is some additional investigation by the magi: from the star they have descried a birth, but not the details of that birth. Where is this king of the Jews? Matthew seems to portray them going to and fro in the streets of Jerusalem, trying to find out where this king has been born.

Herod hears of their enquiries and summons them, having first enquired for himself where this child might be found. Meeting with them, he passes on the knowledge he has acquired from his experts – experts, note, in biblical prophecy. The citation from Micah acts as the pivot in the story. This child will be found in Bethlehem, and he enlists the wise men as his unwitting spies, sending them there to find the child for him.

Armed with this scriptural knowledge, the wise men set out. But now the star changes from astronomical phenomenon to angelic guide.

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.

Matt 2:9

It is as if the star itself needs the scriptural knowledge imparted by the palace scribes, via Herod, to the magi. Ah, Bethlehem, yes, please follow me, I know the way. The heavens may proclaim the glory of God, but the law of the Lord is still needed to revive the soul (see Psalm 19) –  to lead the way into the presence of that glory.

For Matthew is a gospel about how the whole story of scripture finds its fulfilment, and that is not just about the story of Israel, but about the whole of creation, in heaven, as it is on earth. The stars too learn from biblical prophecy, and rejoice at the baby’s birth.

At the beginning of the gospel, as at the end of the gospel, the one who is God with us in Bethlehem (Matt 1:23) and to the end of the age (Matt 28:20) is the one to whom all authority in heaven and earth is given, and star and magi alike acknowledge the infant king.

By Doug

2 thought on “It’s an Epiphany: stars behaving strangely”
  1. Whimsical, but insightful…thanks! All creation strains “on tiptoe”….. as Romans puts it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.