The stars were brighter when I was a boy. I’m certain of it. I was out on a clear, cold night last week and Jeanne said, “Look there is Orion” and I remembered nights after the first moon landing, studying charts and memorizing constellations by day, and keeping a list of what I found. We a field trip to the Iowa State University Observatory, looking at the rings of Saturn and the big, gassy Horseshoe Nebula. I heard Carl Sagan speak live, and then the word “billions” really meant something to me. I was still young enough look up in the sky and start counting. Star gazing from an Iowa farm, with unlimited horizons, dry air, no lights of cities or pollution for miles was spectacular. The Milky Way looked like a river of lights across the sky, and I remember seeing seven meteors streaking in one night. I would look up and wonder when we would find life from other planets. Would everything make more sense when they came? Or would we have to wait; perhaps our little planet was the most advanced. Who knows?!
I grew up in a time when star gazing and optimism went together, we had broken the bounds of gravity and our little planet, soon James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise to boldly go where no one had been before. The aliens were friendly, like ET, intelligent and helpful, maybe curious, not like all the aliens today that want to use our chest cavity as a birthing pod or eat us. The best and brightest were shooting for the billions of stars, not just figuring out how to make billions of dollars on Wall Street. Jiminy Cricket sang, “When you wish upon a star…”
I don’t know if it’s more carbon in the atmosphere, or living closer to major cities in the East Coast, or just that my childhood senses were more vivid, but the stars don’t seem as bright.
All this comes to mind as I think about the Three Kings following yonder star to the Christ child. Reading the old story again that we act out each year, I noticed a couple of new things that fascinated me that I missed before. First, it is amazing to me that these Eastern Magi, apparently non-Jewish astrologers, are the ones who see the message that the messiah is born? How did that get into the Bible? As a young Evangelical, I learned that believing in astrology and looking at your horoscope was an idolatrous sin. You could go to Hell for that. I did a Bible word search for the word astrology and you know how many verses I found? None. There are 46 verses that refer to stars, many of them about the promise to Abraham and Sarah that their offspring will be as numerous as the stars. (They still have a few quadrillion births to go.) But often the star is associated with prophecy of God doing a new thing. God announces changes in the heavens. Especially intriguing to me is this passage in Job 38, where God answers Job in a long discourse, and spends a few verses questioning him about the constellations in the skies:
31 “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,
or loose the cords of Orion?
32 Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season,
or can you guide the Bear with its children?
33 Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
Can you establish their rule on the earth?
The writer of Job anticipates that his Jewish audience will know their constellations. They look to the night skies without any knowledge of Copernicus, and assume that the light of the stars move past them by the hand of God. Therefore any major changes in the skies must be a message from God.
This brings me to my second surprise. When the three Magi first come to Jerusalem, apparently the star is not giving them the precise GPS location of the newborn king, because they go to Herod and ask “Where is the baby?” The must have assumed that this newborn was Herod’s son. That is how it works right? The first born son of the current king becomes the next king. But it soon becomes apparent that none of Herod’s wives have recently given birth – very awkward!
If the star’s sign is true, that the messiah has been born, that the one who will rule as the good shepherd and bring peace has come, shouldn’t that mean that everyone should be rejoicing and beginning the search to go find this infant? He should be living in the palace like the next Dalai Lama. This should be exciting news, right? But it also means that the house of Herod will fall, because there are no babies there. For Herod, it is a star of fear, the harbinger of a shift in power. And here is something I missed. Matthew says all of Jerusalem is afraid too. Not all Jews are afraid, but all of the city of Jerusalem, which is the seat of power, the place where Roman rule is administered. If Jerusalem were a good and just city, and Roman rule was great, there would be no need of Messiahs to be born. Matthew is telling us that the people see the bright star and hear the Magi, and they are all afraid, because their commitments are to Herod and the status quo.
Who could be afraid of a sign in the stars? Ask Copernicus. Ask Galileo. Shifts that come from the heavens can be very threatening. Copernicus and the Magi deliver the same message. You are not the center of the Universe. I wonder if Herod ever searched the night sky and suddenly felt very small and insignificant.
What would Herod have thought if he had known that the Magi’s star was light years away, that what he was perceiving was so distant that light traveling fast and furious at 186,000 miles per second, was reaching him years later, and by the time he saw the star it was long gone to another part of the heavens. Would he have then realized the petty and small nature of his schemes and plans?
What do you see when you gaze up at a starry night sky and contemplate the vast space and countless lights? Like the Psalmist, do you ask, “What is a human, O God, that you would be mindful of us?” Like Job, when I am all hot under the collar about how unfair and unjust life is, I look to the constellations and wonder what I really know. Star gazing is a form of communion. It calls us out of our small concerns and into a bigger universe, to a state of awe and wonder. The appearance of the Magi call me to move in a journey from fear to trust, a trust that if I let go of my own status quo, that the way of Jesus will lead me to the true nature of God and the universe. It calls me away from my cynicism that things never change, to an awareness that new stars can appear on the horizon. It calls us to a journey, like the Magi, to sing “Star of wonder, star of light, star of royal beauty bright…Guide us to thy perfect light.”
Guide us, O God, in this New Year, toward the light of Jesus that it may shine in us.