“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.” Matthew 2:2
Whether it is the nativity in your living room (or maybe the one in your front yard) or the Christmas pageant, the three Magi are often the grandest of the figures. Tall and distinguished, robed, and often crowned, they carry those gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Matthew’s story picks up as the Magi approach King Herod asking about the child who has been born king of the Jews. Therein begins the bigger story of an extraordinary savior born to an ordinary couple who will upend traditional principalities and powers. Herod is the first to feel that threat and he tries to act on it.
The Gospel of Matthew only hints at an important precursor to Herod’s encounter with the magi. Before these distinguished figures came from the east to Jerusalem, they were observing the stars. They were Zoroastrian astrologers, as close to a modern astronomer as there was in biblical days. They spent hours gazing at the nighttime sky, looking for signs. It was that careful attention, looking closely at the heavens and seeing a unique star, that led them to first to Herod in Jerusalem and then to Jesus in Bethlehem.
Matthew does not tell us how they came to know the significance of that unique star. Nor is it clear that they really followed the star from their homes somewhere in Persia. They first went to Jerusalem, probably assuming the Jewish seat of power to be the location of any newborn Jewish monarch. If they had followed that star of wonder, star of light and let it guide them westward toward thy perfect light, they would have found themselves several miles south of Jerusalem in Bethlehem.
Matthew also does not reveal what it was in their observation of that star that signified something larger was happening and sent them on their westward pilgrimage. God was at work, and these astrologers looking closely at the stars noticed the sign before Herod, the king who ruled over the Jews.
Pause & Reflect
Find your favorite nativity. Sit before it, look closely at the magi, and then reread Matthew 2:1-12. Consider the ways the magi in your nativity are consistent with the story. Consider also how they differ. For help, New Testament scholar Diane Chen points out differences between our common understanding of this story and Matthew’s telling of it.
Attending to the Peas
A common trait in many scientists is a joy in looking closely at natural phenomena to understand why things are the way they are. For some, these are observations of nature—attending to the stars or the insects or the earth’s minerals. Others give careful attention to mathematics and how their calculations map onto happenings in the material world. For almost every science professional, there is a formative time when looking closely captured their imagination and foretold their scientific vocation.
Let’s consider the 19th century Augustinian friar, Gregor Mendel. Mendel is known for laying the groundwork for modern genetics, the mechanism that substantiated Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
He did so by looking closely at pea plants. In a five-acre plot on the grounds of the Abbey of St. Thomas, in what is now the Czech Republic, Mendel spent nearly a decade looking closely at many generations of peas (totaling about 28,000 plants). Mendel catalogued every plant by seven characteristics: plant height, pod shape, pod color, seed shape, seed color, flower position, and flower color. From his careful observations, he established the laws of inheritance and the concept of dominant and recessive traits.
Mendel’s groundbreaking contributions to biology were not recognized in his lifetime. He published his findings in 1866, died in 1884, and it was only around 1900 that other scientists discovered his foundational work published in an obscure Austrian journal. Ultimately, Mendel’s ideas on genetic inheritance led to the modern synthesis, a mid-20th century framework joining Darwin’s ideas with Mendel’s that remains a foundational understanding in how modern biology is taught and practiced. His careful attention to his peas was key to how we understand biological processes.
Pause & Reflect
Of course, scientists are not the only ones who are attentive to details and make use of the details to see the bigger picture. Think about the ways your vocation, the tasks that occupy much of your time, require a careful look at specifics and then how those specific details contribute to a greater whole.
To See the Extraordinary
There is a parallel to Matthew’s account of the Magi in Luke’s telling of the shepherds’ experience of that first Christmas. They did not first see a sign, but rather, God encountered them in full angelic glory. The angel’s instruction? To also look closely. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). They were tasked with finding the swaddled newborn lying in a manger in Bethlehem so that they might see what God was doing.
You see, God, so often asks us to look closely at the very ordinary—at one of a multitude of stars, at the swaddling clothes of a babe in a feeding trough, at a young couple expecting a child, at shepherds watching their flocks, and at scholarly types studying the heavens for insight. In these everyday objects and activities, God was working out the extraordinary.
The details—be they the height or colors of pea plants or a change in the celestial horizon—often point us to more significant truths. The ordinary will point to the extraordinary. When we look closely, we so often see God at work.
These Christmas details reveal the fulcrum of salvation history. Christ the Divine, humbled in human form, comes for all of us: scientists and shepherds, Zoroastrians and Jews, rich and poor, old and young, from east and from west.
So come, let us follow the attentive Magi centuries later and pay this child homage. Let us, like the shepherds returning to their fields, glorify and praise God for all that has been and continues to be revealed to us. Let us look closely to see the significance of the Christ child.