The mystery of the star.
It sounds exactly like the title of a Nancy Drew book I would have loved as a girl. Yet if the star in question is the Christmas star in the gospel of Matthew, then the mystery may not be the sort that could ever be puzzled out by a teenaged sleuth, no matter how intrepid. However, in the Bible, mysteries are not puzzles in need of solutions or questions in need of definitive answers. Rather, they are methods and moments when God gives us a glimpse into His purposes.
In the Bible, mysteries are not questions in need of definitive answers.
Two thousand years ago a star appeared in the sky and somehow communicated a very special and very particular message from God. Stargazers from far-flung lands received the message, packed their bags, and began a long journey.
I am no wise man, but I have long had my eyes on the stars. Recently, my mother pulled a mobile, the kind that hangs over a baby’s crib, from a box she’d retrieved from her attic. She had been searching for a pair of old Christmas pajamas she thought might just work for my youngest child, when she lifted out a tangle of yellow-painted stars and said, “Remember this?”
Remember—such an inadequate word for the flood of memory that washed over me. This kind of remembering is physical, more like time travel than reminiscence. I was no longer a thirtysomething mother-of-four. I was a toddler, lying in my crib, watching a slow overhead dance set to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Would I have grown up seeing signs of God in the night sky if I had slept beneath a mobile of dancing ducks or teddy bears? Probably so. But I like to think that my stargazing began with infant eyes. It reminds me that God sees us, even reveals Himself to us, long before we can return His gaze with understanding.
God sees us, even reveals Himself to us, long before we can return His gaze with understanding.
Our spiritual journeys begin just as the magi’s journey began: with God’s call, God’s message, and God’s revelation of Himself. These Eastern stargazers saw a mystery in the sky, and they followed the mystery all the way to Bethlehem. There, they witnessed the revelation of God’s purpose. They stood face-to-face with the greatest mystery, “God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself,” and they worshipped Him (Col. 2:2).
If the words of “We Three Kings” are true, this star still proceeds, and it still has the power to lead. What might it look like to walk in the footsteps of the magi today? Can we still follow mystery all the way to the Mystery Himself?
My little girl, she who was destined for those faded Christmas pajamas, recently told me that the stars in the sky are not real stars because they do not have “points.” This child is a dedicated preschooler, and she knows her shapes, from heart and triangle to diamond and star. The conversation that followed reminded me of the talk we’d had on Valentine’s Day when I placed her hand on her own beating heart while we read the paper heart notes she had collected in class. Real stars, like real hearts, defy our attempts at simplification. No matter how much we learn, via textbooks or our own experience, they remain veiled with mystery.
This is especially true of Bethlehem’s star, the star that shines its light on the origins of Christian faith. The behavior of the Christmas star as described by Matthew is so strange, so mystifying, that many people read it and decide that the magi’s star was a miraculous light that cannot in any way be accounted for by astronomy. No star can move then stop, but this star “went on before” the magi until it “stood over the place where the Child was” (Matt. 2:9). For some believers, the star is a miracle, and attempts at an astronomical accounting are beside the point. Yet others ponder the mysterious movements of this star and ask: Could God have sent a comet? Could God have spoken through the planet Jupiter?
Comets were powerful symbols in the ancient world, and the movements of five planets, including Jupiter, were well known to astronomers. That’s why the star of Bethlehem communicated to the magi—those wise enough to seek Him—that a great king of the Jews had been born. Herod and his circle of learned men didn’t even know where to look. But comets, because they are rare, do not speak in such quiet whispers. Planets, perhaps because they are familiar, do not speak so loudly to us.
The mystery of the star, in every sense of that word, persists.
When I was sixteen, I sat in the back of a bright green pickup truck with two school friends. It was near midnight, and we had parked the truck in a field far outside our small town. We were two teenaged girls and one teenaged boy waiting for a summer meteor shower.
When the stars began to fall, zip-zip, zip-zip, the boy and I were both caught up in astonishment. We sat up straighter, our jaws fell open, our heads tilted back together. The other teenaged girl grew bored. She never was looking in quite the right place.
“I don’t see anything!” she said. But the boy and I saw every falling star together.
No star can move then stop, but this star “went on before” the magi until it “stood over the place where the Child was.”
A falling star does not cast light the way the sun or the moon casts light. Yet by the light of those stars, we felt something had shifted in our friendship. Something hidden was revealed. The boy and I did not see our future, but on a dark night of falling brightness, we first felt its possibility.
If, that night, you had told us we would one day marry, or together we would decorate the ceiling of our first baby’s room with glow-in-the-dark constellations, and that one day we and our two sons and our two daughters would lie on our backs on the wooden dock of a mountain lake while stars fell all around us, I think we would have believed you.
Why? Because every starry night speaks of impossible things made possible, just as it did when God invited Abraham to count the stars. Every twinkling sky echoes the song the angels once sang for shepherds. And every eclipse, every comet, and every dancing planet shares in the mystery that called the magi on. The stars sing of wonders. Job heard the music. David heard it. And we can hear it, too.
To the human eye, planets look like stars. However, they do not behave like them. Our word planet comes from the Greek word planétés, which means “a wanderer.” Planets were known to the ancients as wandering stars. Not only do planets move strangely in the night sky, but they cease moving as well. The term apparent retrograde motion describes the phenomenon by which a planet appears to move in the opposite direction from other celestial bodies in the sky. At times, it can also appear to stop.
When it comes to the magi’s star, the theories with the most influence and support today are complex. They begin with a modern understanding of planetary movements and apparent retrograde motion, but they incorporate what we know of ancient science and cultural symbolism.
It seems that the magi were carefully reading the skies. They may have been prompted to begin a journey to Jerusalem if Jupiter, then known as the “king” planet, began moving through constellations in unprecedented ways that spoke of Judah and birth and a king of kings. When Herod pointed them in the direction of Bethlehem, a return of Jupiter in the night sky could have led them on. Apparent retrograde motion could account for Jupiter stopping like a spotlight or an x on the map that says, “Here, right here, He is here!”
Even if we were to arrive at a perfect explanation, we would still be left with a core of miracle and mystery.
Yet, even if we were to arrive one day at proof of a perfect explanation, we would still be left with a core of miracle and mystery. Perhaps the star of Bethlehem was a light that supernaturally defied everything we understand of the cosmos. Perhaps the star of Bethlehem was a complicated, symbolic dance in the sky set in motion when the universe was first spoken. Either way, the true mystery of the star is not located in its substance but in its message.
First, the star says, Pay attention.
Then, the star says, Respond.
Finally, the star says, You have arrived. In this place and at this time, the mystery is revealed.
And it is. By the light of a miraculous star, the Christ child in Bethlehem is seen and known and revealed to the world by the God who has not only counted the stars but also named them. And by the testimony of that child’s life and death and resurrection, we understand that we also are seen and known and named, though we be as small as an infant lying unaware beneath a tangle of dancing, wooden stars.
Who can grasp the wonder of a God who speaks to us in stars and in whispers?
Who can understand the deeply personal love of a God vast enough to hold the universe in His hands?
We cannot. Yet in our attempts to unravel the mystery, we draw nearer and nearer to the One who calls the stars, the One who called the magi, and the One who calls us today.
Photograph by Nick Veasey/Getty Images