Matthew says it was just one star.
I can only imagine what the evening sky looked like in those days, when there were no electric lights to hide the brilliance of millions upon millions of stars and galaxies. It must have been like a Hubble photograph every night, free to anyone who took the time to simply look up.
But Matthew says in the midst of this brilliance, the magi noticed only one. When they saw it rise, it captured their imaginations, stirred an ancient hope, and sent them on a long journey. After a rather naive and deadly stop in Jerusalem to ask the current king of the Jews where the new king of the Jews had been born, they make their way to Bethlehem.
And that’s when this one star the magi’s trained eyes had spotted in a sea of stars does something stars don’t do. It leads them along the desert road like some kind of flare for five and a half miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. And then it stops. The lone star stops right over the place where the child was, like an ancient Google Maps flashing that blue dot right over the house.
This is one of those stories that drives some people crazy. You have to suspend all kinds of rational thought to believe it, not least of which is the idea that stars behave in this way. Lots of ink has been spilled trying to explain it, or apologize for it, or add it to a rather long list of all the reasons why people of faith are knuckle-dragging morons clinging to an obscure myth in the face of reality.
I love nothing better than engaging in lively conversation about this and lots of other stories with friends and family who would identify as conservative believers and hard-core atheists and befuddled agnostics.
But in the end, I don’t think Matthew wrote these words to engage us in an astronomy lesson or to convince us that stars move about in the night guiding travelers to specific locations. No, I think Matthew’s words are meant to guide us like the star to a very specific place in the text:
“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Before they ever go in the house, they are filled with joy. Before they verify anything, they allow their hearts to open in anticipation. Before they know, they risk belief.
And what they believe is not that a star is capable of leading them. What they believe is that somehow the hopes and fears of all the years are met in whatever child is waiting for them in the house bathed in starlight. The star itself is not the thing. The child is the thing.
I want to count myself as part of the company that allows itself the joy of believing that in this child love overcomes hate, and peace overcomes violence, and hope overcomes despair. And that has nothing to do with stars that defy the laws of physics and everything to do with this one star, shining off the pages of Matthew’s story, pointing to the child who still brings joy to the world.