Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2 ESV)
I never read my horoscope. The stars are giant balls of fusing hydrogen – that’s all. They aren’t deities, as many of the ancients believed. They do not control our individual fates. Their only influence is the tiny tug of gravity that creates galaxies and clusters of stars. The stars have had a great influence on our past. The heavier elements that make up our planet – and our bodies – have been fused together in the stars. As Joni Mitchell sang, “We are star dust.” One star – our sun – radiates energy that does affect our daily lives. The physical nature of stars dictates that the dying sun will ultimately destroy the earth millions of years from now. But I digress. One cannot predict the future of individuals or nations by looking at celestial events.
Yet Matthew’s story of Jesus’ infancy tells of magi from the east who find Jesus in their star-gazing. What are we to make of this story? Is it a biblical endorsement of astrology? Hardly. Unlike its neighbors, pre-scientific Israel always viewed the heavenly bodies merely as created objects, not deities:
And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, (15) and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. (16) And God made the two great lights–the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night–and the stars. (17) And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, (18) to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:14-18 ESV)
The biblical writers in general took a very grim view of the polytheistic practices of other nations. The New Testament writers, in particular, viewed Jesus’ resurrection as a victory over the “principalities and powers” the people of that era believed ruled over the daily affairs of humans.
The magi looked to the sky for guidance, but their journey brought them into contact with a very different way of understanding the universe. The star led them to inquire (indirectly) of the truth revealed in holy scriptures. The main point of the story, though, is not to contrast two ways of understanding reality. Matthew’s primary message is that God makes himself known to all humanity in Jesus Christ.
God spoke to the magi in a language they could understand: the language of the stars. In his mercy and love for all humankind, God chose to announce the savior’s birth to those who looked to the heavens for meaning. He spoke to them in a language they could understand, even if that language was clouded in ignorance and misunderstanding. The story of the magi is not a validation of the magi’s way of inquiring into the truth; rather, it is a proclamation that God wants to be known so much that he is willing to speak so that we can hear. That’s good news for all of us, because we ALL approach God from a position of ignorance and misunderstanding. It’s not an excuse, however, for remaining in ignorance. There are many who may be led to God through superstitious beliefs or magical thinking. The God who caused a star to shine in the east also wants to illuminate our hearts and minds so that we may truly know him. Just as God’s actions sent the magi on a journey of discovery, so it sets us on our way in the journey of faith and never-ending learning.