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Story of the star

A few years ago, just before Christmas, a fairly terrible documentary about looking for the star of Bethlehem graced our TV screens.
All sorts of alleged scientific and historical ‘facts’ were brought into play to demonstrate that the star was a real phenomenon, and the wise men real historical figures. At best, it was pseudo-science. At worst, it fed into the hands of the likes of Richard Dawkins, by deluding itself and its viewers about the historical nature of this narrative.

The sad truth is, there is no evidence that supports that either the star, the visit of the magi, or wise men, or the death of the children of Bethlehem, were real events. 

Amongst all of the early Christian literature, this story is told only in the Gospel of Matthew, which casts doubt on its factual basis. No other early Christian writer knows of this story. So we must ask the question: why has Matthew told this story, and why does he need to highlight that it is the foreign Magi, rather than Jews, that first paid homage to Jesus?

Despite its dubious authenticity, the homage of the Magi has become an important part of our Christian tradition. We feature them in Nativity scenes, sing of them in our Christmas hymns, picture them on our Christmas cards and set a season aside in the Christian calendar to pay tribute to them and their visit.

So if this star and this visit was not an historical reality, what is going on? What does the story mean – both in its own time, and for us today if its origins are more based in folklore than reality?

Firstly, Matthew wants to make a point about Jesus and fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. To the early Christians, Jesus was the light of the world, and what better way was there of demonstrating this, than having the infant Jesus in his story paid homage by gift-bearing seers and kings, who bow down before the child and acknowledge him king of the Jews? Matthew has presented this episode as a prophetic fulfilment of the scripture that we have heard today, from Isaiah 60, and from Psalm 72:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has arisen upon you … nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn ... they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” is fulfilment of prophecy.
Further, Psalm 72 expresses the same hope; in verses 10-11, the psalmist prays that “the kings of Sheba and Seba may bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service”. Add in Numbers 24:17: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near—a star shall come out of Jacob, and scepter shall rise out of Israel.” And we can see the Jewish tradition that inspired Matthew’s story.

The next question we might ask, is why Matthew has chosen the term magi for his non-Jewish worshippers? The choice of this word is interesting, as ‘magus’ and ‘magi’ are usually very negative terms in the NT, especially in Acts. Magi are magicians, or exorcists, from the dark side of things. Paul accuses one of these magi of being ‘a son of the devil’.

The Magi were certainly not servants of the devil in Matthew, for this seems to be the role that Herod fills in the story. Popular belief identifies them as royal kings, but the term ‘magi’ is actually a Persian word, originally meaning a member of the Mede race. It came to mean a seer or prophet, and it was used of Persian priests and sages who were knowledgeable in astrology, dream interpretation and magic. The word eventually took on a negative sense and was used to describe sorcerers, magicians and charlatans. Matthew, however, presents his Magi as ‘wise men’, seers who could read the future in the heavens. Matthew is also picking up on some popular folklore here, a belief that the birth stories of great leaders were accompanied by signs in the heavens.

So Matthew is not relating a biography – he is creating a world where reality is more than what is seen, and where there is a sense of mystery and unfolding of revelation in story.

In the Greek, the word Epiphany means to shine forth, a breaking through of light, a light shining upon someone or something, a revelation unfolding. So Matthew’s story is about revelation, the light of Jesus, destined to shine in a darkened world.

Matthew understands the art of good story telling. He unfolds his revelation in a way that is dramatic, with exotic foreigners, a murderous king and a vision from God. He captures our interests, engages our emotions and lures us into the rest of the story. And in typically Matthean fashion, the gospel writer tells the story with symbols that operate at a number of levels, all with their own meaning and nuances. This story is meant to be read as story, with all that entails, and not as a flat historical narrative that requires proof to authenticate the beliefs of post-enlightenment Christians.

Key elements continue to jump out at us in the story. After the Magi reach Bethlehem, Matthew tells us “they were overwhelmed with joy.” The Greek is even stronger: “they rejoiced with an extreme joy”.

They see the child with his mother. They kneel and prostrate themselves on the ground before him. Isaiah’s words are being symbolically played out. Written in destitute and ruined Israel after the exile in the 6th century BCE, Israel was in darkness and despair. Isaiah's words presented an alternative vision of light shining forth from the land itself and attracting both the attention and respect of the other nations. To the radiant city of Jerusalem, heart of the faith, would the leaders of the world come and bring the wealth of the nations. Perhaps most important of all, the affirmation of the people as both a royal and priestly nation would be made evident by the gifts that would be presented to them: gold – a precious metal synonymous with kingship – and frankincense – a substance associated with the aroma of the sanctuary (Ex. 30:34) and a regular accompaniment to animal sacrifices in the Temple (cf. Lev. 2:1, 16; 6:15; 24:7). As Malachi 1:11 informs us, the latter was also a symbol of the divine name and thus an appropriate offering for the people of God.

For Matthew, the child Jesus has become the symbol of hope for a darkened and oppressed Israel, suffering under Roman rule, and the light that will shine in the darkness to inspire hope in them. And the same precious gifts, symbolising the kingship of Jesus are there - gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Wait, the myrrh is not mentioned in the Isaiah passage. The myrrh is missing in action.
Matthew went to great lengths to demonstrate the continuity between the birth of Christ and the messianic hopes of the Jewish people. He uses over 14 times the phrase that "the scriptures might be fulfilled." He quotes the Old Testament more than any other New Testament writer. So it is curious indeed, with Matthew's great attention to detail, that we find this interesting addition of myrrh to the text of Isaiah 60. What does Matthew mean by it?

We know Matthew used the gospel of Mark as a source. And in Mark we find: And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him…" (Mark 15:22-24a). Matthew may have also been familiar with another tradition found in John where Nicodemus brings "a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds" (Jn. 19:39) to anoint the crucified body of Christ. And perhaps it was myrrh Matthew was thinking of when the woman poured the costly balm on Jesus’ head.

Matthew, in his account of Jesus' birth, directs his readers symbolically to the conclusion of his gospel by taking a few liberties with the text of Isaiah. Introducing a substance associated with the embalming of bodies into the story of a child's birth may seem like a macabre literary device, but Matthew wants his audience to know precisely what they are in for if continue with this story.
Whereas the people of Israel looked forward to the coming of a righteous king, or warrior to free them from foreign rule, what they got here instead was a humble servant destined for an ignoble death, foretold prophetically by the myrrh.

The myrrh is the gift that reveals a God willing to take on the form of a vulnerable child, and become one with all of humanity and creation. The good news must finally, and paradoxically, be concluded with the role of a rejected messiah, suffering in solidarity with a broken humanity.

Lastly, as in addition to the themes of light, revelation, prophecy, hope to the oppressed, and a God who dares to suffer as human, we also find Matthew presents us with a microcosm of the kingdom of God. Firstly, the rich and the poor mingle in harmony in this story. The rich don’t withhold their wealth from the poor; they offer not only necessities, but luxurious and beautiful items. In a tableau image, we see the vision of the kingdom that the grown Jesus would proclaim—peace on earth, good will toward all people, mercy to the poor—the acknowledgment of the full humanity of the poor, of women, and of children. The rich, the educated, the respected are kneeling before a child and a mother, in a poor hamlet in Bethlehem.

The wondrous story of the magi is not diminished by its mythical qualities, despite the efforts of allegedly wise men and women of today trying to discover exactly what happened in the astronomical and historical realms of the first century; the wonder and the good magic of the story remains undiminished. The Eastern kings, dressed in many-coloured robes, the camels moving ponderously over long stretches of sand, the star so bright, with its long glowing tail leading them toward a humble hamlet called Bethlehem where a baby lies in a stable—these things are the elements of a good story, symbols that fix the story in our minds for more than a moment.

The story of the Magi invites us to take the time listen, and to imagine the sights and smells of the desert and the stable. It asks us to ponder its rich symbols, of tradition and a newness, of life and of death. It invites us to make the long, slow journey across the desert towards a star. It invites us ponder in our hearts the coming of a child of promise and hope, who would shine light into the dark places of the earth. Lastly, it invites us to journey to follow our own stars, and to bring to life the kingdom within ourselves through our interaction with the rest of humanity.

 

Elizabeth Raine

Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018. 

Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister. 

Quote for today

...But you know Him, for He lives with you, and will be in you. John14:17

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About Our Church

Our faith community began in 1975 as a small ecumenical gathering of people who settled in the new Canberra township of Tuggeranong. We have grown with the Tuggeranong Community, and our parish centre is the hub for our work, as a place of worship, of gathering, fellowship and ministry.

We come together for authentic and Christ-centred worship. While we worship in a variety of styles, we share a common focus on faithfully listening for God’s Word and sharing His kindness and compassion with others. We express our love for God and others through a range of ministries, and connections with our community.

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