When we read Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus, we learn about the visit by the Magi, or "wise men." There were more than three. They probably traveled from somewhere near Persia in a large group for safety, with armed servants. But we think of three, because there were three gifts.
When I was a child I wondered if the star moved, something like a little light hovering in front of them. If it had been like that, then the story would be fantasy or fable. But that is not what Matthew describes.
They probably saw a brilliant configuration in the night sky on two separate occasions. When I lived at a high elevation in Opheim, Montana, once there was a special configuration of Venus lining up with our moon. The dark night sky was absolutely brilliant where that configuration took place.
Something like that was seen by the Magi, but in a part of the sky that they designated as referring to the land of Israel. In their minds, stars located in different parts of the night sky had a connection to events on Earth. Most of us no longer believe this, because our understanding of the universe does not leave room for belief in magic or in divinized stars. But the Magi believed it, and interpreted the movements in the sky with a significance we would find strange today.
A noted astronomer, Dr. Craig Chester, informs us (see Imprimis Archives, December 1996) there were astronomical sights that would grab the attention of "star gazers": "In September of 3 B.C., Jupiter came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo. Leo was the constellation of kings, and it was associated with the Lion of Judah. The royal planet approached the royal star in the royal constellation representing Israel. Just a month earlier, Jupiter and Venus, the Mother planet, had almost seemed to touch each other in another close conjunction, also in Leo.
"Then the conjunction between Jupiter and Regulus was repeated, not once but twice, in February and May of 2 B.C. Finally, in June of 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest objects in the sky save the sun and the moon, experienced an even closer encounter when their disks appeared to touch; to the naked eye they became a single object above the setting sun. This exceptionally rare spectacle could not have been missed by the Magi."
If the planet Jupiter was the "star of Bethlehem" and made a retrograde loop, it would come to a stationary point for a while, from the point of view of human observers. That is probably what Matthew meant when he said the star came to a "stop" on the night the Magi arrived at Bethlehem.
No - wait! - I am not arguing that this was the astronomical event surrounding Jesus' birth, only showing the kind of event that would have been meaningful to the Magi. If King Herod died in 4 B.C., then this event does not fit. The Magi saw something unusual while Herod was still alive.
An early Christian, Origen, thought the "star of Bethlehem" may have been a comet.
There was also a remarkable conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7-6 B.C. So we are left unsure of the exact year or details. Yet these examples show the kinds of conjunction that would shine brilliantly and get the Magi excited. The Magi did travel to foreign courts for special occasions, so Matthew's account adds nothing unusual in that regard.
Whatever they saw, it clearly impressed the Magi: they began their journey. The second sighting came the night they approached Bethlehem. To them, it meant they had reached their goal. Manger crches aside, there was no star hovering over a house, which wasn't necessary as long as they could make inquiries. Jesus may have even been a crawler by the time they arrived, maybe 6 to 8 months old. Or he may have been younger, only a couple weeks or months old.
The Magi's integrity protected the infant Jesus and his family. Their gifts certainly made it financially possible for Joseph to "flee" and travel with Mary and the baby to Egypt, then provide for his small family's needs. For centuries, Egypt had received Jewish refugees and there were established Jewish communities there.
There is a lot this story that tells us about God. According to the Jewish prophets, studying the stars is a waste of time. The stars do not predict anything on Earth. So the Magi's understanding of the world was wrong; their theology was seriously flawed. Yet God used their faulty ideas to lead them to find the baby Jesus and honor him.
Because God led the Magi to honor the birth of Israel's prince, Jesus' family was given the means to escape and live. God used people who weren't even Jews to bless the Jews. God doesn't wait for us to get everything right theologically before God blesses us with gifts, works in our lives for the good and initiates divine adventures in our lives.
The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Walla Walla. You may e-mail him at EmmanuelOffice@wwelc.org or call him at 509-525-6872. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should call Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312 or email her at email@example.com.