1 January 2012Matthew 2:1-12
"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." (v. 2)
Imagine a world with no street lamps or light pollution; a world
with no TV, where people would spend hours marvelling at the stars
in the night sky. Over time, you would become familiar with the
constellations, and learn to follow their paths, and use them as
useful markers for navigation. When the heavens and the earth were
considered to be intimately related, it was common to believe that
goings-on in the galaxy were omens, or that these glittering
heavenly travellers carried messages from the gods. In this ancient
world, studying the stars and interpreting them went hand-in-hand;
astronomy and astrology were one and the same. In Babylon, among
other places, the stars were even worshipped as deities.
Science tells us that stars are the prime source of energy to the planets surrounding them, and also the furnaces in which the atoms of the universe are fused together from simple hydrogen and helium. It's difficult to comprehend, but the elements that make up your body were once constructed in the centre of a faraway star at temperatures millions of times hotter than we can imagine, and flung across the universe by stellar winds or the explosion of the star. Stars are pretty amazing things!
So, Magi came from the east, possibly from Babylon or Persia. Were they magicians, astrologers or kings? They were certainly wise men (as the story goes on to reveal). And they came following a star. Was this the very first satnav? Or a bright exploding supernova? Or a comet? Or even the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn creating a spectacular light (as occurred around 7 BC)? We may never know the answer (although the latter makes poetic sense - as Jupiter was associated with kings, and Saturn with the Jews - so they came looking for the King of the Jews!). But let's not miss the point in all this speculation! The Magi came to pay homage to ... not the wondrous star, but something much smaller and more fragile. They came, not to bow in awe of a bright flaming ball of gas in the sky, but to kneel at the cot of a baby. They travelled hundreds of miles, over dangerous terrain, risking ambush and exhaustion, and argued their way past palace guards ... to worship a child.
The Magi had only limited knowledge of the Jewish faith. But they came trusting in what they knew, and found what they were looking for. For Matthew, this was the fulfilment of Scripture. For Herod, this was the arrival of a threat to his unworthy kingship. For the Christian today, this is the Messiah being revealed to those outside of Judaism too. For the Magi, this was simply the trip of a lifetime! And they came to worship! Maybe not as we would worship, and maybe not with the same meaning or emphasis, but their journey and their gifts were acceptable to Jesus. And the gifts were symbolic - of course! Gold for a king; frankincense for a deity; and myrrh was often used for festivities, although it was also used for burial (including Jesus' own). They are also very valuable and would have a practical use for Jesus' family, particularly in their exile that was to follow.
So these wise men followed a fascinating star in all its wonder and splendour, but they came to worship an even brighter light: a light that was not created and will never be extinguished, the true light of God that they saw in a small child: Jesus the Messiah. The words of a carol put it best of all:
O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.
In this story, God used the spectacular to point to the humility and holiness of God's own love laid bare in a manger. As we are dazzled by the attractiveness of certain things as we follow our desires, to what extent do we miss the beauty and joy of smaller things taken for granted?
This new year, what paths are you resolving to follow? You could resolve to fill each day with a little bit of worship, as you let the light of Christ shine in you more and more.