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When They Saw the Star

What exactly did the Magi see - and does it even matter?

After placing a star atop our family’s Christmas tree a few days ago, I began to contemplate this ubiquitous symbol of the season: what exactly did the Magi see in the sky and why did it lead them to seek the “King of the Jews?”

Happily, my husband is in the midst of studying for an adult Bible class he is teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, so a dozen commentaries and books on the gospel of Matthew, where the account of the Wise Men is found, were at my disposal.

What I found as I researched my first question, however, was an apparently inexhaustible supply of speculations. Among the intriguing and inconclusive theories I read was that the star was a supernova, a comet, a meteor shower, a conjunction of planets, or a supernatural star. The more I pondered all these theories though, I realized that the point was, unless one interpreted the star as allegorical, that the Magi saw something in the sky and it caused them to wonder.

Josef Pieper remarks in one of his thought-provoking essays on contemplation that, “The really human thing is to see the stars above the roof.” I have written this quote in the astronomy book I teach from.

For to see the star-streaked sky is to be astonished and to be astonished is the first step toward an authentic religious experience. In his book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis traces the common strands in all developed religion. The first, he says, is the numinous, a sense of “a Presence at once feared and loved.”

Every year a beautiful teaching moment occurs in my astronomy class when my third graders discover for the first time just how vast the universe is and how small our planet in comparison. I tell them about the largest known star, VY Canis Majoris, and I show them a scaled picture of this star next to the sun and earth. The sun is a mere pencil point; earth, barely visible. Inevitably, one of my students expresses the unspoken thought of all his classmates, “That’s scary. We’re so small.”

Yes, I agree. Creation is vast and our Creator is powerful, but that same Creator became a babe in a manger, died for us, and rose again. And so they learn of the glorious paradox of God’s transcendence and immanence without quite learning those big theological terms yet.

“The heavens declare the glory of God…and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (Psalm 19:1, John 1:14).”

Indeed, the heavens declared the Incarnate Word to the Magi by ultimately leading them to Him. For true religious experience begins with a vision of the numinous, but it does not end there. It ends with the worship of the Christ-Child.

I had the answer to my second question.

Aquinas tells us that, “Wonder is…desirderium sciendi, the desire for knowledge, active longing to know.”

May we give the children entrusted to our stewardship moments where they may glimpse the wonderful, in the prayer that this will stir their desire to know the King of the Jews.

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