We sing about it, we put it on top of trees and buildings, its in every Christmas pageant ever done- the star. This is a very odd star that Magi see and no one else notices. The star that appears and moves and marks the spot where Jesus lives. It is another odd bit within Matthew’s odd nativity story. Magi- astronomers of dubious reputation- follow a star to Jerusalem and ask the ruling king where the new king is. Not a wise move for wise men! You can read about it here. There are lots of interesting things to think about in this story but I would like to focus on the star today.
The Star. A lot has been written about it. In many parts of the country there are programs at planetariums that recreate the sky in first century Bethlehem so you can “see” the star for yourself. You can check out on line resources here, here, here and here. I will let the astronomers work this out. I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that the nativity stories are based on historical realities. At the same time, I don’t want to insist that every single verse be historically verified. What I find most interesting is how the author of Matthew’s gospel tells this story to make his point.
The star. Did it exist and if so, what exactly was it? Who knows. The more useful question, it seems to me is, “What does the star mean? Why does Matthew tell us about it?”
Not unlike today, there were people in the first century who believed strongly in astrology and the effect and affect the stars had on individuals and nations. There are plenty of stories from the ancient world that make a link between the birth of important people or important events and celestial phenomena. The Romans had these kind of stories about their emperors. There were also people who believed that astrology was just so much silliness. Certainly the Jews were in the last category.
Matthew tells a story that Jew and Roman can understand. Astrologers from a foreign land, the magi, can read the signs in the sky and understand. Note that Herod and the rest of the Jersusalem establishment cannot recognize the sign. Even though they don’t believe in astrology, they are frightened. The Magi follow the star and worship. Matthew seems to tell us- even the stars proclaim the birth of the Messiah to outsiders who can read the signs. The star does not make the Messiah. This is another sign to the reader, that God is in control of all things on earth and in the sky.
The star that only the Magi see. Like so many of the things Jesus will do, only those with eyes to see and ears to hear read the signs correctly. Outsiders, foreigners, these are not the people the Messiah comes for… are they? Matthew and Luke in their nativity stories carefully, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, carefully explain that the Messiah has come for all people. Even non Jews of dubious credibility from foreign countries.
Many people in the Roman Empire believed signs in the heavens heralded important events. It was common knowledge that celestial signs appeared to mark the birth of important people. For readers in Matthew’s day, this star is an expected, and perhaps even necessary part of the story. So Matthew tells us about this most unusual star to help his first readers get the point. Remember that in the ancient world a nativity story was shaped to highlight the importance of the person whose life was being described. The star is an important feature of the story.
Matthew wants to be clear for both Jewish and Roman reader. Matthew uses genealogy and quotes from Scripture in his nativity story to firmly place Jesus in Jewish history. Matthew makes sure to tell about celestial phenomena for the non Jewish reader. Matthew is carefully making his case for Jesus.
The star is not merely an odd detail that Matthew casually tosses in. Like everything else in the Nativity stories, it is included for a reason. The star, in Matthew’s gospel tells us important things about God. The God of Israel is the ruler of the heavens who moves stars if he wishes. God sends this odd star, the sign that the one born under this star is special and destined for important and great things.