Did you see it? Last week the news was full of what they called ‘the Great Conjunction’ and ‘the Star of Bethlehem’.
It’s been nearly 400 years since Saturn and Jupiter passed so close to each other in the sky, and nearly 800 years since the alignment occurred at night and wasn’t obscured by the sun.
Could this natural phenomenon account for the bright rising star seen by the wise men in the east? There’s many a speculation online concerning planets and constellations and scholarly articles written referencing much activity in the heavens around the time of Christ’s birth.
Picture thanks to Independent newspaper.
In Glasgow we saw nothing but clouds. Clearly, the wise men were not Glaswegians! The Magi are thought to have belonged to the priestly caste of the ancient Medes, living in the Persian empire – forefathers of modern day Kurds. Marco Polo, the intrepid 13th century merchant explorer, wrote about visiting their tombs in Saveh, an old stronghold city of the Medes and home to an observatory dating back to the 6th century BC.
In the early 90s I visited a humanitarian aid project in Kurdish northern Iraq. It was winter, just after the Gulf war and there was no electricity. The bedroom was icy cold. I lay down under the traditional weighty quilt and nervously blew out my candle, expecting total darkness. Instead, light streamed through the thinly woven curtain and I pulled it back slightly to appreciate the view. The moon and myriads of stars in the clear night sky were shining over the snow capped mountains – one of my all time beautiful experiences.
Indeed, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork’ (Psalm 19:1).
It’s not surprising that the birth of God’s son should be accompanied by an extraordinary celestial event.
Why did the Magi connect the ‘star’ to the birth of the King of the Jews? There are many astrological theories, but perhaps the link is the prophet Daniel. During the Babylonian exile, King Nebuchadnezzar promoted Daniel to chief administrator and head of the wise men (Daniel 2:48). With the rise of the Persian empire it was King Darius the Mede who reluctantly had him thrown into the lions’ den, and then on his miraculous preservation issued a decree that in every part of his kingdom people should fear and reverence the God of Daniel.
‘For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth’ (Daniel 6:26-27).
These Magi were perhaps followers of the prophet Daniel. Did they know the prophecy concerning the star (Numbers 24:17)? Had they pondered the Angel Gabriel’s message to Daniel and calculated the 69 prophetic weeks till the Messiah’s birth (Daniel 9:24-27)?
It was a logical step to presume the baby would be born in the palace in Jerusalem, but they got it wrong. It would take another look into Scripture to clarify and further direct them. The scribes read to them from the book of Micah locating the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Then the star reappeared confirming them on their short 5 mile journey – surely only a supernatural ‘star’ could single out a specific house.
The Truly Great Conjunction
The journey of the Magi is a good example of God’s wonders and God’s Word working together – that’s the truly great conjunction! The star sign grabs their attention and the Word explains it. Then the Word directs them further on their path and the wondrous star confirms them on it.
God continues to work, just as he did in the Gospels, by way of this great conjunction. Today, interestingly, especially among Iranians and Kurds, a healing, a dream, a vision or a word of knowledge is opening hearts of the oppressed and the suffering. Such signs and wonders alone, however, are not enough to save and transform lives. It takes the Word of God to implant genuine faith and fellow believers to help that faith grow.
Perhaps God in paring back the usual holiday razzmatazz is reminding us of that first Christmas by drawing our attention to his star signs in the sky. May his wonders cut through disinterest and cynicism, and may God’s people be ready to love in word and deed. Like the Magi, may we worship and offer our treasures for he is worthy of it all.