(Thoughts were inspired when I looked at the clear sky and wondered what might have caused the Christmas Star. 10 minutes read.)
One thing I really like about the Christmas season is the tradition of setting up all the lights to brighten up the occasion. Christmas lights are often the first decorations to go up and the last to come down around the holiday season. No matter where you go, you see them everywhere – inside the homes, on the roofs of houses, at office buildings, and lining city streets.
Before I experience having snow, or White Christmas, I associate Christmas growing up in the Philippines with having colorful star lanterns we call “parol.” We also didn’t have evergreen Christmas trees when we’re kids but we surely have twinkling lights we hang to whatever, like sticks and twigs. Christmas celebration will not be the same without the Christmas lights.
(Photo of colorful parols; photo taken from giginyc.net)
The custom most likely originates in Germany where Christmas trees were lit, which symbolized Christ being the light of the world. Traditionally, candles were used to light up Christmas trees, attached to branches with pins or melted wax. And in the 17th Century, European Christians put burning candles in the windows of their houses to show others that they could worship there.
Eventually, that tradition made its way over to America and other parts of the world. As you can imagine, candles were a huge fire hazard. Families could only keep them lit for short periods of time and they kept a bucket of water nearby at all times should fires arise, which often did.
In 1880, Thomas Edison had already invented the light bulb and was looking for a way to advertise it. So he hung up lights on the outside of his laboratory to show them off to passerby. A couple of years later, one of his employees had a bright idea that the lights could be used to solve the problem of fires caused by the candles of Christmas trees. He strung 80 red, white, and blue Christmas lights around the Christmas tree and called the local newspaper to cover the event. The idea took off, especially when several US presidents started lighting their trees at the White House.
Today, approximately 150 million light sets are sold in America each year. The world’s largest Christmas light display used nearly 1.2 million LED bulbs.
We’ll venture on another Christmas light story. It is found in Matthew 2: 1-10.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
5 So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”
9 When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.
Bethlehem is a town 5 miles south of Jerusalem. The name Bethlehem means “house of bread.” It is the ancestral home of King David. The old testament prophet Micah prophesied that a king who will shepherd the people of Israel will come from Bethlehem.
At that time King Herod, also known as Herod the Great was ruling over Judea. We know quite a bit about Herod from other historical sources. They portray Herod as a paranoid, power-hunger, cruel, tyrant. He was born around 73 BC. which means he would have been almost 70 years old at that time and near the end of his life. He was granted the title “King of Judea” by Rome but a subordinate ruler under the Roman Empire. He had 2000 soldiers as personal body guard and also employed secret police to keep an eye on the populace. He had his wife and two of his own sons killed when he felt threatened that they would take his throne. So it was not out of character when he ordered all infants to be killed when the wise men did not return to tell him where baby Jesus was.
Star Light Star Bright
Now let’s explore the star that guided the wise men. In one of our favorite Christmas hymns it says:
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
That Christmas Star, also known as Star of Bethlehem is probably the most famous star in history. Is it a real celestial body? If it is, can we still see it today? If not, where is it now? Can science explain this phenomenon?
Leaving aside divine occurrences, there are four possible explanations* for a transient bright “star” around the time of the birth of Jesus:
Could it be a meteor? A bright meteor would capture the attention of wise men. But it would be too transient to guide them on a long journey. And it would not be visible from a wide area on Earth since meteors occur just 60-80 km above the Earth’s surface. This is the least likely explanation.
How about a comet? A bright comet might be interpreted as a star, and it could be widely visible over the Earth for many weeks. Halley’s Comet appeared a few years too early in 12 B.C. And comets were beheld by the ancients as bad omens, not something to announce the birth of a new king.
Is it a nova or supernova? A dying or exploding star would be a reasonable cause. There is some record made by Chinese astronomers of a nova in 5 B.C. in Aquarius or Capricornus, but it was not particularly bright or noteworthy.
How about a planetary conjunction? Huh, what is that?
On Dec. 21, 2020, Jupiter and Saturn was so close together that they appeared as one bright shining star. Many were referring to it as the “Christmas Star.” It’s the closest the two planets have appeared together in about 800 years. It will happen again in 2080.
A conjunction is when two bright planets aligned close together, and is perhaps the most promising explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. By running the celestial clockworks back in time, astronomers know a rare “triple alignment” of Jupiter and Saturn occurred in 7 B.C. when the planets approached each other closely three times between April and December. The first approach may have alerted the wise men, and by the time they traveled to Judea to pay respects, the planets would have approached each other again to appear nearly as a single “star”.
Even more striking conjunctions occurred in 3 B.C. and 2 B.C., this time between the two brightest planets Jupiter and Venus in the constellation Leo. The planets came close enough to appear as a single very bright star. The first conjunction would have been visible in August of 3 B.C. in the eastern sky before dawn, which corresponds to the location described by the wise men in the gospel of Matthew. Jupiter and Leo were associated by the ancients with kings, and Venus was associated with fertility. So to ancient eastern astrologers—the “wise men”—this event may have heralded the birth of a new king and got them packed and headed west. When they arrived in Judea months later, in June, Venus and Jupiter would have returned together for a second close approach in the western sky.
Wait a minute, does that means Jesus was born in June or in spring? That would help explain the words in the gospel of Luke, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night”. Shepherds in Judea would tend newborn lambs in the spring not in December. December 25th is really an ancient Roman winter festival of Saturnalia, a date which the early Christians adapted from the pagans.
(Above is Jupiter-Venus conjunction that happened May 1, 2022; photo from Astronomy Now)
So does a Jupiter-Venus conjunction explain the Star of Bethlehem? Perhaps. But that is beside the point.
What is important is that God was leading the wise men to Himself. He will use whatever way is necessary, whether it is comet, or dying stars, or planet alignment, to lead those people who are searching for Him. He does not want us to be lost and purposeless. He provided the pillar of cloud for the Israelites to lead them. He provided the star to lead the wise men. He will also lead us and direct us. He is the good shepherd. He will not lead us astray.
Who Are The Wise Men?
Let us now examine the wise men. Who are they? Are they kings? Are there three of them? Neither of those.
The original Greek word in the Bible that was used to refer to them was the word “magos” from the old Persian word “magus” meaning powerful. That term in Persian and Babylonian culture is use to refer to those who studied astronomy, prophecy, medicine and religion. Some even dabbed in sorcery and fortune telling.
We can speculate that they were likely part of the Persian Kingdom and knew about the Jewish religion through the influence of Daniel, who lived 550 years before Jesus’ birth. This would certainly be a testament to Daniel’s influence.
From the world’s perspective these men were full of knowledge. They knew the sciences, religions, and history, and literature. This group was probably who was called upon by Nebuchadnezzar and other kings as counselors when there was a difficult problem to solve, just like during the time of Daniel. In the world’s eyes, they were the smartest and the wisest.
But these wise men, were wise for another reason. They were spiritually wise because they sought the truth and sought to know about the one true God. Though they are not Jewish, and with or without Daniel’s influence, these men apparently studied ancient Jewish Scriptures and went on a quest to find the Messiah.
Are we wise like these wise men? Do we seek the one true God?
Journey To The Light
Now let’s look at the journey these wise men took and maybe we can learn from it and apply some principles about our own spiritual journeys.
The first point I want to make is that their journey was a journey of faith.
Traveling at that time was far different than it is today. They couldn’t just jump into a car or hop on a plane and set out and arrive later that day. Traveling was a lengthy, wearying, and a dangerous activity. Riding a camel for days, weeks and months may not be the most comfortable thing. They probably smell too. Plus the weather could be very hot at times and then quite cold at times as desert weather varies greatly. There could even be sand storms. Towns would be few and far between. There may be thieves and robbers, making the trip dangerous, especially if you’re bringing some expensive treasures, like gold, frankincense and myrrh. Maps are incomplete or there are no maps at all. They have no GPS. Uh, I take that back. They have a star that was leading them.
Imagine a friend asking them before departure. Where are you going? We don’t know. How far is it? Not sure about that either. How long will you be gone? Um, that is yet to be determined. Men, for somebody who call themselves wise men you certainly don’t know much!
The wise men didn’t have a lot of facts in front of them. But they believed. They saw the star and they knew it was a sign from God announcing the birth of Christ. And that was enough for them to go. They knew the Scriptures and what the prophets said about the Messiah. With faith they went on a quest to find Him.
Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
This fits the magi’s actions very well. They hadn’t seen Jesus. He was far away in an unknown place. All they had was a promise from a scripture and a star. That was enough for them to believe.
Are we willing to place our faith in God like the wise men? Are we willing to sacrifice the comfort around us to follow God? Are we willing to face dangers to follow God? Are we willing to set off with an unknown destination to serve God?
The next point I want to make is that the whole purpose of their journey is to worship.
According to them as written in Matthew 2:2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
They probably traveled 400-700 miles to reach Bethlehem. They crossed the desert and traveled by night since they need to follow the star. That most likely took them more than 40 days to reach their destination. They left the safety of their homes and risk everything. For what? To worship the newborn King.
When they found the Messiah, Matthew 2:11 said “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”
How about us? Do we seek to worship God in our life’s journey? Or we labor only for our own glory? Is everything we do for our enrichment and pleasure?
Continuing on Matthew 2:11, it said: “Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
I want us also to realize that giving gifts and offering is part of worship just like what the wise men did. Whether we give our financial resources, or our time, or our skills, that is part of our worship. I pray that our life’s purpose is to worship the God who created and saved us.
The last point I want to make is that the wise men’s journey led to their enlightenment and they became the first witnesses of the Light.
When they went out in faith, and followed the star, they saw with their own eyes the newly born King of the Jews. They found out for themselves that what the scriptures foretold was true. The Messiah indeed had come. They came and saw the Light of the World in the flesh, who came into this dying planet to save it from darkness. The world did not know that the Redeemer they were waiting for had come. His very own people, the Jews, were unaware that their Savior was born. But the wise men did. They came and became the first witnesses of the Light.
The essence of the story of the wise men is that they follow a light, which is a star, but found a brighter light, the Messiah, who is Light of the World, and the real Light of Christmas.
Friends, may we be like the wise men. For wise men and wise women today still seek Christ – the Light of the World.
Witnesses of the First Light
Last October we were blessed to visit Acadia National Park in Maine. One of the most iconic activity to experience there is to witness the sunrise at the top of Cadillac Mountain. So we did. Though that meant waking up quite early in the morning and bundling up as it was cold especially at the summit.
Cadillac Mountain is the highest peak on the eastern seaboard of the United States. From October through the first week of March, Cadillac’s height and coastal perch make it the very first place in the whole United States to see the first light of the day.
So that particular morning, even though we were cold, we can claim that we were among the first witnesses of the first light for that day in the entire US continent (photo below).
If you are wondering where in the world is the first light of the day seen? According to google, it is in East Cape, New Zealand which has the honor of witnessing the world’s first sunrise each and every day. That seems a neat place to visit.
There is a Christmas song by a Christian group named Glad, titled “In the First Light.” Here is the opening verse of that song:
In the first light of a new day
No one knew He had arrived
Things continued as they had been
While a new born softly cried.
But the heavens wrapped in wonder
Knew the meaning of His birth
In the weakness of a baby
They knew God had come to earth.
There may not be much witnesses when Jesus came to this earth as a baby. But that “Light of the World” changed this dark world. We who have received Him, we who are witnesses of that Light, may we share to others that they may also see the First Light.
Have a Blessed Christmas everyone.
(*scientific data cited from Astronomy magazine and Farmer’s Almanac)