Before I and everyone else packs up our creches for another year, some thoughts on the Magi — and that Star.
It’s nearly little Christmas.
I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the the Star, and the Magi who followed it. How many were there? It’s not known, but legend has it they bore three gifts and they may represent, among other things, the three stages of life, or the three branches of the human race, semitic, white, black (which, of course, omits the Asian and therefore is beyond imperfect). The Magi were a once-powerful priestly caste of the Medes and the Persians, as recorded by Herodotus and others. They studied astrology and the divination of dreams.
How did they know about the blessed event? How far did they have to travel to Bethlehem?
They could have met with a very harsh fate had the brutal and crazed dictator Herod known they had ignored his request to report back to him the birthplace of savior. They could not have known, initially, of his terrifying and murderous reputation.
They were also said to be descendants of the great soothsayer Balaam. Nothing indicates that they enjoyed any great power at the time of the birth of Christ.
What about the star?
Identifying the star — that Star — is a thorny issue. How could these men, working with only the naked eye or the most rudimentary scientific instruments, have made astronomical observations of any precision? This is pretty much, word for word, the observation of that renowned and now mostly forgotten late French Catholic scholar Henri Daniel-Rops, writing in his marvelous book, Jesus and His Time.
It could have been a “nova” similar to the new star that appeared in the Consetllation Aquila in 1918 or that was noticed in 1572 after the massacre of St. Bartholeomew’s Day. But no writers on those times in question recorded such an appearance.
Halley’s Comet, when it appeared on January 10, 1910, was visible in Jerusalem, its light observed to pass rapidly from east to west, becoming difused in the east and reapparring in full visibility to the west, as indicated in the Gospel Story. But Halley’s Comet could only have passed over the sky of the countries in question during the year 12 B.C. and not the year 6 B.C., when it is most often speculated that Christ was born. Other comments recorded by Chinese astronomers in the years 4 and 3 B.C. tell us it would not have been visible in Western Asia. Also, a comet, being subject to their diurnal orbit like other stars, could not indicate a precise location, much less a particlar house in a particular town.
Kepler thought that this celestial pheonmenon might be a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn as occurred again recently. His calculations suggest this could have occurred in the year 6 B.C., even though this date was not yet considered the most probable date for the birth of Christ. Interesting.
And the word “star” as used in scripture does not mean the stars ordinarly visible, but indicates some astronomical phomenon.
On the borderland of science and legend, as Daniel-Rops puts it, is Russian poet Dmitry Merezhkovsky’s theory that the “star” of the Gospel was a rare celestial phenomenon, an equinocrtial passage of Aries through Pisces which would signify to the Babylonian Magi, haunted by the idea of a recurring deluge, the an announcment of the end of the world and a new age in the history of the human race.
St. John Chrystosom, though pre-scientific, knew that stars don’t do what the star of Bethlehem was said to do — that according to Catholic convert and scripture scholar Scott Hahn.
Stars in the sky were often identified with angels in heaven. The philosopher Philo of Alexandria speculated that the stars “are living cratures, but a kind composed entirely of mind.”
Thus John Chrystosom concluded that this was an appearnace of a Christmas angel. Those celestial messengers are forever being caught up in the cosmic drama, from the creation of the world. Good and bad angels are, to the devout mind, what accounts daily for all that is communicated to us in our universe. They are everywhere in the Christmas story.
My patron saint, Gregory the Great, according to Scott Hahn, accepted the angelic interepretation. He also observed the great difference beween the way God dealt with the shepherds and how he dealt with the Magi. The shepherds, though uneducated members of the lowest rank, were still members of the chosen people. They’d been hearing all their lives the prophesies of liberation destined for the Jews. So it was, says Gregory, that God announced Christ to them with angels.
“But a sign, not a voice, guided the gentiles,” writes Scott Hahn. He quotes Gregory’s homily on the Ephiphany, asserting that the Magi ” they were not prepared to make full use of reason to know the Lord.”
In other words, as Scott Hahn notes, when it came to understand the meaning of Christmas, “the simplest of pious field hands were better equipped than the most erudite scholars.”
But those scholars, to their eternal credit, came in an ardent search for the truth. “That’s something the angels could see — and work with,” writes Hahn.
And, it should be noted, they ultimately got their share of important angelic knowledge: an angel apperared to them in one of their dreams in time to steer them clear of Herod who might (God help us!) have tortured them to extract the knowedge they now posessed of the Infant Jesus’s whereabouts.
Thank you, angels.
And so, like those truth-seeking foreign gentile travelers, we must let the angels work with us and guide us now and to the end of our own desert journeys.
.…This Birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death…
T.S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi
Yet the poet has his lone Magi, reflecting long after that journey and the witnessing of that birth, proclaim that he and his fellow travelers were afterwards no longer at home or at peace in their native lands (w)ith an alien people clutching their gods.
I know how he feels.
And so I say a wistful goodbye for another anxious year to those fellow travelers.
God willing, I’ll see them — we’ll all see them — again next year, in peace and joy.