With less than two weeks until Christmas, you may have noticed an increased population of stars. The stars I speak of are not found in the night sky, but adorn our street corners and churches, often illuminated with tinsel and lights. So common have these decorations become that we seldom think of how one passage from Scripture has so influenced the way we presume Christmas should be seen. However, these decorations also beg the question, Do we see the story of the Christmas Star in its proper light?
About a month ago, a brother priest called me, asking for some help to explain the Star of Bethlehem. He wondered how the Bible can both condemn astrology, but then make reference to an astrological event that predicted the birth of Jesus? I reminded him that the magi/astrologers who were following the star were “from the east,” or non-Jewish. Therefore, the way the magi approached creation was slightly different from how the Jewish people approached creation. This is one of the more powerful insights into the story of the Star of Bethlehem: The event of Jesus’ birth was so significant that even people who were not of the Biblical worldview were desiring to discover this infant King.
This leads to a second thought about the Star of Bethlehem: Was it a literal, historical event; a metaphorical, symbolic event; or a little bit of both? The honest answer to this question is I don’t know. There is no clear foreshadowing of this star in the Old Testament, save one story that references a prophetic star in the book of Numbers.
I see him, though not now;
I observe him, though not near:
A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise from Israel. (Numbers 24:17)
Some may ask, “Isn’t this a clear prophecy of a star?” The answer is no, this passage from Numbers does not predict a new star will appear in the night sky. The star being referenced is symbolic for a person. The Jewish Scriptures most commonly understand stars in one of two ways: As a part of God’s creation that give glory to God or a symbolic reference to a person or group of people. Therefore, the book of Numbers does not provide clear assistance for those who seek a literal astronomical event in the night sky that leads the magi to Christ. However, if we are seeking a metaphorical, symbolic understanding of the star, more along the lines of what we hear in the prophet Isaiah, (The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who lived in the land of gloom a light has shown.” [Isaiah 9:1]) then looking at Numbers and Matthew together becomes far more insightful: What the non-Jewish world sought through natural reason was illuminated by what had been revealed to the Jewish people by Divine Revelation of who this light signifies. Though the mystery remains of whether the Star of Bethlehem was a real astronomical event or not, there is no doubt that the truth that is inspiring the magi on their pilgrimage is he who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
On a personal, spiritual level, I am drawn this Christmas to the idea of the light of truth leading all of us to a new discovery, a new world, a new Kingdom. When we think of the discovery of a new star, planet, or galaxy, the mind instantly wonders about how the newly discovered world relates to the world we know: Is its’ star the same as ours? Does it have planets like ours? Is there life in this galaxy? Whether it be the discovery of the “new world” on this planet or our first steps on the moon, the honest answer to questions about discovery is that we will not fully understand a new world until we encounter a new world.
Many people had presumptions of who the Messiah was going to be about 2,000 years ago. Some hoped for a military zealot who would establish a new political entity in Jerusalem. However, Jesus did not come as a zealot, but as the “Prince of Peace,” inviting us to experience a new world, a new Kingdom of which this world does not know nor understand. To this day, one does not truly understand the world of Christianity until it is encountered, embraced, and lived. To borrow one of the more bold statements from G.K. Chesterton, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” The core sentiment of this quote affirms that it is one thing to be a Christian, it is another thing entirely to walk in the strange and beautiful world that is the Christian worldview. Most of us, myself included, often find ourselves in an odd tension with one foot in this world and our other foot in God’s Kingdom. Thankfully, Jesus himself presents this tension as necessary, seeing the new world of God’s Kingdom being established in our midst while still waiting for the full revelation of that Kingdom when Christ comes again in glory.
What is the world you walk in? What is the light that guides you? As we prepare to celebrate the great mystery of Christ breaking into human history through the Incarnation, may we have the courage to explore the beautiful, strange, and fascinating world that is the Kingdom of God. And, together, may we who walk in darkness be drawn to the light of Christ!