Will we follow the star of Bethlehem?
We pastors can find ourselves in a bit of a quandary at Christmastime.
On the one hand, we can perpetuate the multiple Christmas traditions that are like muffling blankets piled high on the Christmas story, or we can take the risk of being perceived as some kind of Grinch by choosing to whip them off and reveal the true story that lies underneath. So, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all my fellow Grinches out there, here goes …
Jesus was not born in a stable. Despite what our carols remind us, there was no, “draughty stable with an open door”. There were no grumpy innkeepers telling Joseph to “push off” and go and find somewhere else. In Palestine, there was unlikely to be any, “winter’s snow“ and baby Jesus, ”no crying he makes?“ I don't think so! Oh, and, sorry to tell you, there were not three kings called Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, and they did not show up riding on camels the night Jesus was born.
We have layered tradition upon tradition over the Christmas story, however, in the words of special agent Mulder from The X-Files, “The truth is out there” and it is no less magical or wonderful than our fantastical picture-perfect Christmas cards depict.
We human beings have always had a preoccupation with illuminating famous people and we even call them stars. We literally shine lights on them, venerate them, and even follow them. This week, at the time of writing, we mourn the loss of the footballer Pelé (known as “the king of football”) and Vivienne Westwood (known as the “queen of fashion”); Harry and Megan are doing the rounds on Netflix, and celebrated YouTubers are making headline news.
It is in our nature to want stars to shine brighter, and we have unwittingly done the same with the Christmas story. It makes for a better story that Mary and Joseph went from door-to-door looking for accommodation, that Jesus was born in a stable on a frosty night illuminated by a star, and that the shepherds and three kings show up that very same night carrying sheep and presents wrapped up and tied with colourful bows.
The truth is that Mary and Joseph did travel to Bethlehem, and it is true that the accommodation they were in – most likely Joseph's family home in an ordinary Palestinian house – was full as there was no space in the guest room. It is true that Jesus was laid in a manger and that the manger was a sign to shepherds that did visit that night. It is true that Joseph and Mary did stay in Bethlehem, and that some two years later, when Jesus was a toddler, a kind of celestial phenomena led some people (we do not know how many) from the east to visit the child. And it is to these strangers, these aliens in a foreign land, that we now turn.
On the night of Jesus's birth, there was a celestial phenomena that was observed by astrologers in the east. We do not know what it was, and the word “star” used by Matthew in his gospel can mean many things. Astronomers today argue about what the phenomena could have been – for example, whether a supernova or conjunction of planets – however the most likely explanation is that it was a comet. Whatever it was, a group of astrologers called “magi”, a kind of priestly order of learnt people that combined science, traditions, and astrology, interpreted the sign that a king had been born in Israel, and so they set off to pay homage to this King of the Jews.
King Herod the Great, a nasty piece of work if there ever was one, was on his deathbed. Herod had murdered three of his own sons, and even had a contingent of innocent people ready to be slaughtered as soon as he died to ensure there would be plenty of mourning. I told you he was nasty! Herod heard of the visit of these magi, summoned them for an explanation, and enquired of his own priests where such a king might be born. They told Herod that the prophecies pointed to Bethlehem, and so the magi, no doubt on horseback, headed for Bethlehem to find a boy who had been born on the night the comet appeared – and as if to confirm they were on the right track, to their joy, the comet reappeared. Upon finding Jesus, they paid homage with the gifts of gold, incense, and spices, all typical gifts given to a king.
Now, what I love about this visit is that the magi are totally out of place. They are not Jewish. They are complete outsiders and yet they are invited to meet this child, the true King of the Jews. A wonderful Catholic priest said, “Jesus did not come to draw a line in the sand, but to draw ever-increasing circles.”
God came in the person of Jesus, not only for the people of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Judea, or Israel, but for the whole world. He came to include us all, so that, in the eyes of God we might stand as his beloved children, forgiven and accepted. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus literally embraces us all and all we need to do is accept and receive Him.
As we begin a new year, we also enter the season of Epiphany, which means “a manifestation of light”, and we have a choice to make. There are many stars we can follow in our culture – whether footballers, fashion icons, royals or YouTubers – yet there is one star we can choose to follow, and that is Jesus, the Light of the World. He has come, He is coming, and He will come, and the best news is that you can meet Him in the here and now. Will we take the chance, follow the star, and see where it leads?
Hoping and praying you all have a happy and blessed new year.
• Reverend Gavin Tyte is the pastor at St Mark’s Anglican Church. Visit stmarks.bm