After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;for out of you will come a rulerwho will shepherd my people Israel.'”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
– Matthew 2:1-12
To be a pilgrim
Image – Astronomer by Vermeer
Every year in the papers there are articles about the Star of Bethlehem and what it might have been. I always find these stories fascinating. One of the most compelling I heard was that rather than a comet-like star it could have been more a conjunction of stars and planets that would only appear at a particular time, that would predict the birth of a King.
Whatever, I don’t think the wise men (magi) had much to go on.
We all have this image of them following this star: sleeping in the day and then at night seeing this clear star and following it carefully. It doesn’t really say that in the scriptures here (and this story only appears in Matthew’s gospel). It seems that they see the star or pattern of stars in their observatory ‘in the East’ somewhere and then decide to travel to Jerusalem. Once there, they go to Herod’s palace – the king’s palace – the logical place for them to try – to enquire of the learned people in Jerusalem and share their astronomical expertise.
(Quick aside: I’ve been really enjoying the Natwivity – the nativity story told through Twitter. The other day the ‘wise men’ were tweeting about their trip to the palace and one said:
– made me chuckle!)
It’s actually from scripture that they find out where to go next – not from seeing the star. Herod’s scholars look into the scriptures and identify this verse from Micah.
I think their journey was a very risky one and only based on their astronomical knowledge – nothing else. What a great step of faith they took! Makes you wonder what their friends and relatives thought of them, setting off on a journey to a war torn part of the Roman Empire?????? (AND carrying very rich gifts with them!) Journeys were much more dangerous in the ancient world than they are for us today. All sorts of rituals were undergone, depending on your religion, before setting out on any journey as so many people died, got mugged or taken as slaves. Most people never travelled further than their village.
Once they leave Jerusalem, the star seems to appear again as they head towards Bethlehem – no wonder they were ‘overjoyed’ – it was God’s encouragement to them that they were on track.
We are all pilgrims like the wise men. We set out on this journey of faith towards God when we become Christians. We have some evidence for our beliefs, but there are times when we can’t see the star and there are times when we need others to point the way. But we keep going, looking for clues that we’re on the right track.
The last verse of this passage always stands out for me:
‘they returned to their country by another route’.
Once they encounter Jesus, they can’t be the same again and they can’t retread the path they trod.
It is the same with us. Once we meet with Jesus we find a new Way: a new Way to live, to be. We also do this whenever we confess our sins to God, we ask him to guide us on a new way and for help not to go back over the ground we’ve been over before that makes us stumble.
Where are you on your journey of faith at the moment?
Have you just seen the star?
Have you just asked someone for guidance?
Have you found the star again after a long period of darkness?
Wherever you are, the goal of the journey is Jesus, and when you reach him (and sometimes we go through this journey in a single day) – nothing is quite the same again.
To finish up today, I’ll leave you with one of Baz’s (my husband’s) favourite poems, The Journey of the Magi by TS Eliot.
This is a recording of TS Eliot reading the poem himself – it’s not great quality but the images in this video are nice! Text below as well if you would prefer to just read it at your own pace:
‘A cold coming we had of it,Just the worst time of the yearFor a journey, and such a journey:The ways deep and the weather sharp,The very dead of winter.’And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,Lying down in the melting snow.There were times we regrettedThe summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumblingAnd running away, and wanting theirliquor and women, And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendlyAnd the villages dirty and charging highprices:A hard time we had of it.At the end we preferred to travel all night,Sleeping in snatches,With the voices singing in our ears, sayingThat this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;With a running stream and a water-millbeating the darkness,And three trees on the low sky,And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.But there was no imformation, and sowe continuedAnd arrived at evening, not a momenttoo soonFinding the place; it was (you may say)satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,And I would do it again, but set downThis set downThis: were we led all that way forBirth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.We returned to our places, theseKingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,With an alien people clutching their gods.I should be glad of another death.