"Driver, follow that star?" Well, no.
We’ve all been invited by the archbishops to #followthestar throughout the 12 days of Christmas, ending with Epiphany this Sunday. Even Alexa has been recruited by the redoubtable CofE digital team to share the good news of the Christmas message. Except in the biblical narrative no one followed any star! I recall as a curate taking a school assembly on the authentic Christmas story as recounted in the New Testament. Just getting the nativity of Jesus straight. It’s my job. Afterwards the head teacher took me aside with a gentle reprimand. “You’re taking the magic out of Christmas.” In fact - although I didn’t say this to him - that was my very aim. I’ve always had a passion for the Christmas story, not the one rehearsed every year in countless school nativities but the one described by Matthew and Luke in their respective gospels. Sadly, not everyone gives their account a close reading – including, as I will mention in eight paragraphs time, a scholarly Archbishop of Canterbury. So what about the star? Did not the Magi (aka the wise men), an uncertain number and not necessarily three, follow the star across field and fountain, moor and mountain en route to worship the new-born King? Well, no. Matthew tells us that these magi reported to King Herod: “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1). That’s it – although an embarrassing episode both for Jews (including Matthew, of course) and evangelical Christians who are taught to give astrology a wide berth. But that’s another blog. But these astrologers, having looked at a star or bright object in the night sky, drew the conclusion that this signified the birth of a child who would become King of the Jews. This could refer to the planet Jupiter (the royal planet) being in conjunction with Saturn (sometimes thought to represent the Jews), an event which happened three times in 7BC. Whatever, they drew the conclusion that this was of huge significance, so much so that they decided to make the journey themselves in order to honour the new-born King not just with gifts of great value but with their very selves. We’re not told why – but it was a huge step of faith. So much so, as Matthew tells us, that they were overjoyed to find the young child Jesus. The whole process took about two years while the journey itself would only have taken a few months. But how do they find this new born King? Not by following any star but by the simple recourse of going to the place most likely to be the birthplace of the King of the Jews. Using common sense, they make their way to Jerusalem. But how do they meet up with King Herod? Did they simply knock on his palace door?
Here Archbishop Rowan thought the wise men were not very wise. In his Christmas broadcast in 2002 he observes that ‘the wise men create the typical havoc that complicated people create; telling Herod about the Christ child, they provoke the massacre of the children in Bethlehem.” But the Archbishop, himself accused on taking the magic out of Christmas, is making the popular assumption that the wise men on their arrival in Jerusalem head straight for Herod’s palace. Not necessarily. Herod is an insecure tyrant, given the title ‘King of the Jews’ not by his subjects but by the hated Roman occupiers. Totally ruthless, he had members of his own family murdered, including his beloved wife. And as for all despots, he would have had an effective intelligence network, always on the lookout for signs of trouble on the streets. In fact, Matthew tells us that King Herod, on hearing of the Magi’s search for the new-born King, first summons the chief priests and teachers of the law to ask them where the Messiah is to be born. Somehow he makes the jump from King to Messiah. These scholars would know the answer immediately, no need to open any scrolls – like all Jewish scholars they knew their scriptures. It is at this point that Herod meets with the Magi. He may well have summoned them, not the other way around. They would have been too politically astute just to turn up out of the blue with their big question. So why do the Magi go from Jerusalem to Bethlehem? Because King Herod tells them. No star, not yet. But which child? The best guess is that the number of babies under the age of two in Bethlehem would be only between seven and twenty. Presumably the Magi discussed this during their five mile trek to Bethlehem. Would they go house to house? And how would they know which child? It is only as they arrive in Bethlehem does the star, in the words of Matthew, they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. In some way or other, the star identifies the actual house. Note, house not stable. And child, not baby. A two year process has reached its fulfilment, a journey of faith arrives at its destination. No wonder do these Babylonians magicians bow down before the child Jesus and his bemused parents and offer their worship. Matthew in his Gospel uses the word follow some 26 times, at least in the NIV translation. But never in his account of the Magi. In fact, it is the King of the Jews himself who calls the Galilean fisherman, as he calls us, to “Come, follow me!” (Matthew 4:19). May we follow our crucified King, the true Star of Bethlehem, this coming 2019 with the determination, the perseverance and the intelligence of the Magi.