Hold it…Christmas is over, right?
Not so fast, pilgrim. The Christmas story still has one more episode yet to unfold: the visit of the wise men, the Magi, celebrated in the feast of Epiphany, on or about January 6.
There’s a lot of folklore that’s grown up around the Magi. We don’t know precisely where they came from, their names, or how many there were, though the carols and stories around the hearth leave the impression that we do. Some writers have connected them with Daniel’s legacy in ancient Persia. They were stargazers, probably astrologers rather than astronomers, though magic and science tended to overlap quite a bit in those days. They most likely weren’t present at the manger and may have arrived in Bethlehem up to two years later.
Mostly, they’re a puzzlement. They were pagans, and Gentiles, yet they sought the King of the Jews and undertook a long, hazardous journey to find him. They were the only ones who recognized Jesus as civil royalty, lavishing him with rich gifts at his coming. God provided a sign in the heavens appropriate for them to correctly interpret and follow, though the Scriptures condemn the practice of astrology. Why them? What need was there for Jesus to be celebrated as a legitimate ruler on Earth, by them? I don’t know. Gallons of ink and reams of paper have been expended in attempts to comprehend the enigma of the Magi, and I can’t add to this storehouse of scholarship in a few lines on a blog, even if I wanted to. Frankly, I love a good mystery, and I’m content in this situation to accept the answer, “just because.”
The Star of Bethlehem also generates a lot of speculative energy this time of year, and there’s always the requisite news interview with an astronomer who racks and stacks the various plausible scientific explanations for a phenomenon Christians are perfectly willing to accept as miraculous. This article favors a planetary conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, though comets and supernovae are also considered. If you’ve been watching the conjunction of the Moon and Venus the past couple of nights, you have an idea of how impressive the near approach of two bright celestial bodies can be. In the final analysis, the why and how, again, aren’t so important. Something remarkable happened, and it brought the Magi to the place and time they needed to be.
When people start chatting about the Christmas Star, I always think about Arthur C. Clarke’s classic short story, “The Star,” in which a crew of space archaeologists finds an archive of artifacts from an extinct alien civilization, with a disturbing connection to the Nativity story. The protagonist, a Jesuit scientist, assembles the evidence into a result that leaves his faith, like a Bond martini, shaken, not stirred.
The outcome isn’t especially surprising. Clarke was an atheist, though he admitted a lifelong fascination with the idea of God, and he trips over the standard paradox that is a deal-breaker for most atheists—bad things happen to good people. Clarke was a talented writer with considerable foresight, one of our modern Magi, if you will, wandering through the wilderness in search of he knew not what, but unwilling to follow the Star shining brilliantly in the night sky nor to believe it could possibly point to the truth.
May we have eyes to see the Star that still illuminates our world this Christmas season, the wisdom to comprehend its significance, and the humility to follow it.