Peoples in the ancient world believed that the births and deaths of earthly kings were marked by corresponding heavenly events. Non-biblical sources identify the Magi as Persians trained in astrology and the interpretation of dreams, among other things. With this background to Matthew’s passage, we can ask two important questions.
First, was there a known astronomical phenomenon that corresponds to Matthew’s account?
The brief answer is that there were a couple of events that would have generated such curiosity and even searching. Some Scripture scholars and astronomers suggest the historical alignment of Saturn and Jupiter in 7 B.C., while others point to an appearance of a comet around 5 B.C. Still other scholars suggest the possibility of a supernova.
It should be noted that there is an error in our calendar system that places the birth of Jesus in A.D. 1. In reality, Jesus was mostly likely born sometime between 2 and 3 B.C., which would put his birth very close to both the planetary alignment and the comet.
So the answer is yes — there were astronomical phenomena surrounding the nativity of Jesus that could have been interpreted by Persian magi as possibly signifying the birth of an earthly king.
Second, and more importantly, what is the significance of the star and the journey of the Magi? This is the question Matthew wants us to focus on. Let’s look at some of the important saving truths communicated through this passage.
1. Natural revelation: Studying the created order can lead us to acknowledge God as Creator. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us, there can be no contradiction between the natural sciences and religion, since it is the same God who creates and who reveals. The natural sciences should lead us to a faithful acknowledgement of God as Creator. The star shining in the night is the means of this natural revelation.
2. The word of God: To arrive at the fullness of revelation, we must study the Scriptures. This is an enduring message for all of us who desire to know God more clearly, love God more dearly and follow God more nearly. There is no substitute for the word of God through which Jesus continues to reveal himself to us. As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” That is especially true of the Old Testament prophets who not only announced Bethlehem as the place of birth but also foretold the presence of a star (see Numbers 24:17).
3. Perseverance in faithful discipleship: The Magi spent great time and effort in their endeavor of faithful searching — most likely years. This detail reminds us that our faith is a lifelong journey that requires perseverance lest we stop short out of complacency or abandon our faithful efforts when disappointed by the lack of immediate results.
As we start a new calendar year, perhaps one of these three aspects of this passage can inspire us to grow deeper in our faith. May Jesus, the Light of the World who shone in the darkness, lead us to worship him and to serve him by placing the gifts of our lives at his service.