I have an app on my phone called Sky Map. It connects with the GPS and accelerometer of the phone to show you what the sky looks like from every angle imaginable. You can see stars and planets, the sun and the moon, as well as all the constellations labeled, with everything mapped out. It’s really amazing, and it’s gotten some of my time at night when I’m in the city, noticing planets in the sky and identifying them.
Imagine what it was like to try to do that without any digital technology like that? That’s what it was like for the magi, who studied stars. It was attentive work. You had to be dedicated and know how to pay close attention to many objects out there in the heavens, how they changed and moved, and for some, came and went. You couldn’t just pick up an app and, bang, there it is right in front of you.
Here in Ecuador, there is a manger scene in the church, and above that is a star. A giant, giant star. And when we do the Christmas drama, someone walks with a huge stick, attached to which is a giant star, and that leads the way. That’s all good. The drama wouldn’t work and the message wouldn’t come across if, for example, the star was tiny and hardly noticeable.
But, that’s exactly what the star was: tiny and hardly noticeable. On the periphery of the sky of constellations and planets and moons and stars.
That’s why the magi noticed and no one else. They had discernment in stars.
Let’s start at the beginning of the story. The magi are in the east, and they see a new star appear. They recognize it being for a new king of Judea. So, they do what people often do when there is a new leader: pay a visit to congratulate and acknowledge with gifts. Using just their own common sense, they pack up some gifts and supplies for themselves, and set out to go where you would imagine the new king would be: the king’s palace in the capital. And when they arrive, things are very strange: there’s no big crowd, there’s no one else there to congratulate the new king of Judea. A new king? That’s news to everyone – especially the current king! No one else had come, no one else brought gifts, no one else even suspected a new king.
No one else noticed the star.
It wasn’t a big, blazing ball in the sky. It was tiny and on the periphery. You needed discernment to notice the star.
Well, then Herod sent the magi to go look for the child in Bethlehem. Essentially, go find a needle in a haystack. How are they going to find a child? They know stars, not kids! They’ve come all that way, and now what? That’s when the star shows up to guide them – and that’s when they celebrate.
And behold, the star that they had seen when they were in the east preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Mt 2:9-10)
They had easy access to the family because no one else was there. No one else noticed the star. If it was a big bright star, lots of people would have come, at least out of curiosity. But it wasn’t. It was small and on the periphery. You needed discernment to notice it.
The star didn’t lead the magi to Herod. The star took them from Herod to Jesus, from one king to the King. That’s where God’s grace inside of us leads us. It takes us from what we think is great, what we think is at the center, to what God sees as great, what is the real center. It takes us to the real Jesus.
So don’t expect a blazing ball of fire to guide you.
The star is tiny, and it’s at the periphery.
You’ll need discernment to notice it.