One Christmas ‘tradition’ that continues to amuse me, is the annual attempt to cobble up credible ‘explanations’ of the nature and behaviour of the ‘Christmas Star’. It appears only in Matthew’s Gospel but (all credit to the writer’s imagination) it never fails to make an ‘other worldly’ impact on readers of his story.
In the story, the first mystery surrounding this new star’s unexpected appearance, as it rises in the eastern sky, is that although astronomy and astrology were key interests in various contemporary civilisations, none of them noticed it. A second mystery is why a few Persian astrologers could possibly have imagined that it foretold the somehow important birth of a future king of a subjugated people, in a tiny, backwater province of the Roman Empire. Good stories, however, require temporary suspension of disbelief.
A third mystery is this – given that it rose in the eastern sky, like any other star, how could this one conceivably have ‘guided’ these astrologers all the way to the very house where this new ‘king’ had been born? To be as accurate as that, it would have had to hover not much more than 50 feet above the ground and, since real stars are fiercely blazing nuclear furnaces, there would not have been much left of the house !
All is not lost, however, for alternative suggestions are to hand. These include super-novae (exploding stars); Halley’s comet; or the close conjunction of two planets in the sky. Nowhere is there a record of any such super-nova; Halley’s comet arrived a little too early in 12 BCE; and a conjunction of planets would still not explain guidance to a particular house. Surely it would be more sensible, to ask ourselves where Matthew got hold of this ‘star’ idea?
In his view, Jesus was ‘the Son of God’ who, to be the ‘Saviour of the World’, had come from the heavens above. It was ‘appropriate’, therefore, for the heavens themselves to put on a suitable display to announce his arrival. As a Jew, Matthew fine-combed the Jewish scriptures to find ‘prophecies’ relating to Jesus’ coming. Among these, it would seem, were Numbers 24:17, “I look into the future, and I see the nation of Israel. A king, like a bright star, will arise in that nation”, or Isaiah 60:3, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising”.
The ‘star’ is a symbol, used in a delightfully and creatively imaginative way, which is of ‘theological’ rather than historical importance. It enables Matthew to paint a picture of non-Jews recognising, acknowledging and worshipping Jesus, not only as the Jewish Messianic King, but as the whole world’s Saviour. This was in keeping with Isaiah’s prophecies which see the ‘Kingdom of God’ – God’s restoration of Israel – as leading to the Gentile nations joining the Jewish people, in worshipping the one and only God, at his Temple in the New Jerusalem. Now that would indeed be a ‘star-striking’ event !