Ahead of Them Went the Star
|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
January 2, 2022
Isaiah 60:1–6; Matthew 2:1–12
It’s hard to pick between favorite Christmas stories. I mean, Luke’s gospel has all the singing angels and the shepherds and the manger. It’s the one that Linus quotes from in A Charlie Brown Christmas, making it an icon of pop culture as well as a religious staple.
In fact, I would say that the Lucan version is the one that most people have in their heads when they think of the Christmas story. Everything we think of, everything that’s in a nativity scene—except the animals and the wise men—is in it.
Many of the Christmas carols seem to have it in mind: Angels from the Realms of Glory, Angels We Have Heard on High, Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, Away in a Manger, The Babe in Bethlehem’s Manger, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, among many others. When you read the story from Luke’s gospel, those carols play in the back of your mind. It’s not to say that Matthew’s gospel doesn’t have carols—it’s got The Coventry Carol, What Child Is This? and, of course, We Three Kings, among others—but the Luke version is clearly the more evocative.
Nevertheless, I have a fondness for Matthew’s version, perhaps because it is so often just blended with Luke’s version and its particular emphases go overlooked. And as a result, there is a certain unfamiliarity with the text, such that we are inclined to miss some of its key points.
II. THE TEXT
The first point we miss is that Matthew’s account is rather different from Luke’s. First, it takes place entirely in Bethlehem rather than beginning in Nazareth and moving to Bethlehem for the census. There is no heavenly host of angels, no shepherds, and surprisingly, no manger or stable. In fact, when the wise men arrive in today’s lesson, we are told that they found “the child with Mary his mother” upon “entering the house.”
But beyond these, there are a lot of things we don’t know about a story that we otherwise find familiar. For example: where was Joseph? The text says only that they found “the child with Mary” when they arrived. Perhaps he was busy in the carpentry shop and got quite a surprise when he came home from work that day.
We don’t know how many wise men there were—the text does not say. In the Middle Ages, there were often twelve of them depicted. People generally assume there were three because three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—were given. The names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar were all later creations.
We don’t know how they traveled. All the paintings and representations in popular media show them riding camels, but no camels are mentioned in the text. Well, at least not in Matthew. There are camels in the Isaiah passage:
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.Isaiah 6:6
It’s clear that Christians began to make an association with the passage in Isaiah not only because it mentions light, but especially because of the mention of gold and frankincense right near the mentioning of camels. Thus it is in literary associations that traditions are born.
We also don’t know where they’re from. The text simply says “the East,” but that’s a pretty big area. Most scholars assume that they’re Zoroastrians and are therefore from what would be modern-day Iran.
They’re not “kings.” We sing the beloved hymn We Three Kings and many cultures have a “Three Kings Day” celebrated on January 6, but the text does not describe these visitors as “kings.” Our translation says “wise men” but the word in Greek is μαγοι magoi or “magi” which is the plural of magus or mage, which means “a member of a hereditary priestly class among the ancient Medes and Persians whose doctrines included belief in astrology : a Zoroastrian priest.” In short: an astrologer or magician adept in the occult. As one colleague of mine once remarked, there’s no reason to imagine that astrologers were any more respectable in the ancient world than they are today. At least, not among the Jews. The Persians no doubt valued their readings of the night sky but the Jews would have viewed all of that as divination and sorcery. This may explain why Christians began to refer to the magi as “kings”—that sounded a lot more reputable than “Zoroastrian astrologers.”
So, given all of these questions and the dubious nature of these foreign visitors, why is Matthew telling us this story? Why does Matthew tell us this version without the angels and the shepherds? In the words of a former colleague of mine, “What are Iranian astrologers doing in my Christmas story?”
III. FOLLOWING A STAR
It should be remembered that Matthew isn’t just writing down a story of a bunch of things that happened; he’s creating a narrative, and a narrative that’s meant to communicate a theological truth that’s more important than the details. So, what is he up to?
A. The Gentiles
The inclusion of Iranian astrologers is no accident. It fits in with a theme common to Matthew, Luke, John, and the early church: the mission to the Gentiles.
In Jewish thought, when the Messiah came, all the nations would turn to the worship of the One True God. We see that very sentiment in the passage from Isaiah, in which the prophet envisions a day when the nations will bring all the exiles back from their captivity and dispersion, bringing with them the wealth of the nations, and ultimately, they praise of God:
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.Isaiah 60:1–6
The inclusion of these foreign mages in the nativity of Jesus is Matthew’s way of showing that Jesus’ message was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. These magi represent the nations who “shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (In fact, that second line may be where Christians get the idea that the magi are “kings.”) But in the end the nations shall “proclaim the praise of the Lord.” Here at the beginning of Jesus’ story, we already see the nations proclaiming the praise of the Lord through gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and coming to God’s light.
B. The Messiah
The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are also symbolic. Gold is an obvious symbol of tribute to a king. Frankincense was used in the Israelite tradition as a sacred offering and to mark the presence of the divine (“incense owns a deity nigh”). And myrrh, a rare and treasured perfume, was used in Israelite purification rituals and is also mentioned in the gospels as present at the crucifixion. In Mark’s gospel, the wine that is offered to Jesus is “mixed with myrrh.” In John’s gospel, one of the perfumes used to anoint Jesus’ body at burial contains myrrh. And so, it may be that these gifts symbolize Jesus’ royalty, his divinity, and his death.
C. The Heavens
Matthew may have been influenced by the “light” in the Isaiah passage in fashioning a narrative about a star. But he may also have been guided by a common ancient belief that a “labor in the heavens” had a corresponding effect on earth. That is, comets, stars, and other heavenly phenomena were seen as portents, signifying some change in the lives of human beings. Given the fundamental change to human affairs that the coming of the Messiah would bring, it stands to reason that there must have been a portent in the heavens proclaiming the arrival of the Son of God.
IV. FOLLOWING THE LIGHT
All of these provide some context and explanation to Matthew’s presentation of this story: fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, a sign of Jesus’ mission, cosmic affirmation of Jesus’ identity. But I think there’s another thing that this story teaches us.
The text tells us that the wise men “observed his star at its rising.” Some translations read “in the east” because ἀνατολη anatolē means both “east” and “rising.” (Interestingly, orient has the same set of double meanings.) But as soon as they saw the stary, they came to pay homage to the one for whom the star had come. We don’t know where they came from or how long they traveled, but the fact that Herod asked them when they first saw the star and then later decided to put all the male children of Bethlehem under two years of age to death suggests that they had been following this star for two years at least.
After they learn from the Jerusalem scribes where the Messiah was to be born, they set out and we are told “ahead of them went the star.” They follow the star and find the child Jesus and his mother at home.
And here, I think, is the point for us today.
A. Finding God
Over the holidays, we had the occasion to meet with some family friends and one of them was telling us about a fair amount of suffering his family had been through. He found this an obstacle to believing in a merciful, benevolent God, and chafed at the suggestion that these events his family had been through were somehow God’s doing or part of “God’s plan.”
I agree. I am loath to suggest that any suffering, that any evil, was simply a test from God or all part of some greater purpose. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason; I believe that we have to find meaning for the things that happen.
But all of this is merely to illustrate that it can be hard to find God in our life experiences. There are times when we go through so much trouble and pain that it can be really hard to see where God is in any of it. I know this feeling, too. There have been things I’ve gone through and had a colleague ask me, “Where’s God in this for you?” only to hear me answer, “Nowhere.”
This experience is not uncommon. Elie Wiesel tells a story from a concentration camp in which a child is hanged, and someone asks, “Where is God?” “There he is,” thinks Wiesel. “Hanging from that tree.” Absent. Dead.
And so, it’s interesting to me to read this story and see how it was that the magi found the Christ child. Though they consulted with the scribes and got the answer from the scriptures, the scribes and scriptures were not enough to help them find Jesus. To do that, they had to follow the star. They had to follow the light.
B. Following the Light
We live in a time of great challenge. There is economic and political upheaval. A pandemic that is soon to enter its third year. A mental health crisis on top of our health crisis. Geopolitical tensions. Climate change and environmental degradation. Wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and on and on. It can be hard to see where God or Jesus is in any of this. And here’s where the magi say to us, “Follow the light.”
In the midst of the darkness, there are spots of light beckoning to us. In the midst of ongoing racial injustice, there are those working for equity and for justice. A star in the heavens calling forth.
In the midst of economic and social upheaval, there are those working for protection for the poor and vulnerable, who seek to protect the marginalized. Another star in the heavens calling forth.
In the midst of rising sea melting polar ice caps, there are those working for a future that is sustainable and that exercises responsible stewardship of the Creation. Another star in the heavens.
In the midst of a rising climate of fear and alienation, there are those calling to us to embrace love, hope, and our common humanity. Another star in the heavens.
There are pains we have suffered, tragedies we have borne that are more than we can handle. But in the midst of those tragedies are those who reach out to us in love and solidarity, offering a helping hand or a sympathetic ear. Another star in the heavens.
In times of overwhelming darkness, we look to these stars in our firmament and follow these until we encounter the Christ child who waits for us at the end.
This is not an easy task. No easier than it would have been to travel from Persia to Judea to look for a child without any further information. But such leaps are at the heart of faith.
In our own congregation, we train ourselves up to follow the light through our God Sightings. Part of the power of God Sightings is learning how others view those small experiences in our lives that we might have brushed off, but which can be those points of light in the starry firmament, beckoning us to follow.
We, too, in the darkest nights can look to the heavens and behold those beacons of light and choose to follow them toward the light. In so doing we follow the magi on their journey toward the Christ child. In so doing, we follow the words of the old carol:
Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
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, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
 Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, s.v. “magus,” accessed January 2, 2022, https://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/unabridged/magus.