‘We have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him’
Reflections on the Nativity Gospels (5)
When the ‘fullness of the time had come,’ St. Paul tells us, God sent forth His Son (Gal. 4:4). The most impressive manifestation of Christ’s appearance was the star that rose brightly in the East.
A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all. (Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians 19.2)
The meaning of this celestial portent was recognized immediately by wise men known as ‘magi.’ Christian tradition tells us that they were three kings. These three were part of an Eastern religious order with an expert interest in astronomy.
We may recall that at the head of the lineage of Jesus was Abraham, through whom the gentiles, or non-Jewish nations of the world, would be blessed. This benediction comes true with the Magi, who symbolize the first inklings of the knowledge of Christ in an indirect way, through created nature. For them
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament declares His handiwork (Ps. 19:1)
Centuries earlier, another gentile predicted the revelation of Israel’s messiah through the appearance of a star. As Moses led his people toward the promised land, they passed through the land of Moab, to the east of the Jordan River. Their power threatened the Moabite king Balak so greatly that he hired a pagan prophet and seer named Barlaam to use his powers to pronounce a curse on the Israelites. Instead, every time Barlaam tried to do he was overwhelmed by an angel of the Lord (who even used a talking donkey!).
The story is told in the Book of Numbers (Chaps. 22-24). Barlaam received four divine oracles, the final one containing these words
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near—
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel (Num. 24:17)
Like Barlaam, the Magi are a present sign of the future in-gathering of all the nations to pay homage to Jesus Christ, Emmanuel meaning God with Us. What a blessing for us to be ‘surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses’ (Heb. 12:10).