The three wise men loved nature. We study what we love. It takes much time to begin to understand what is going on in the night sky. Those three men from the East must have spent years in patient observation. They had learned not only about the movement and positions of heavenly bodies, they also realized that the sky speaks of even deeper, hidden realities.
Many others then and now have spent years observing the night sky and have not come to such a realization. Many have loved and wondered at the natural world—and some have even committed their lives to sharing its beauty with others, and to preserving and protecting it—and yet have failed to see it for what it really is. We can study nature much, and even show great care for it, without becoming wise.
Wise men are those who see through to what is behind nature, and in doing so see nature for what it is. And it brings them great joy.
The Christmas star was a unique astronomical event revealing a unique divine intervention in human life. But all stars, and indeed all of the natural world, likewise speak of their origin, the divine. And to see this is to become wise. It is to see stars for what they really are.
In his encyclical letter On Care for Our Common Home Pope Francis directs his readers’ attention to the deeper meaning written into the natural world. He warns against failing to see a loving God as the true origin of the world: “A spirituality that forgets God as all-powerful Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God…” (#75)
Ultimately if we do not recognize God as creator, we cannot stand in right relation to the natural world—no matter how much we love or care for it. And if we do not worship the Creator, we will worship mere creatures, or even our own selves.
Taught by a Star
A Byzantine Christmas antiphon says:
Your Nativity, O Christ our God, made the light of knowledge dawn on the world: through it, those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to worship You, the Sun of Righteousness…
At this greatest of moments God chose in his wisdom to turn to his celestial creatures—in a sense he always has and does—as instruments to reveal his plans. Perhaps many in the magi’s culture worshipped stars; perhaps the magi themselves had. Why is it that the three magi were open to receive the message of a celestial phenomenon that could be seen by many others? Perhaps in their study of the stars they had already begun to see what all stars point to, and to hear what all stars are really saying.
It is bracing to consider that the petty king in Jerusalem presumably saw the same stars the Eastern magj did. There were not bright city lights—or other bright indoor distractions—to obscure the night sky. He and others probably noticed a remarkable celestial phenomenon. Herod even seems, at least when he is confronted by the magi, to recognize that the star announces the birth of the long-expected one.
So the divide between Herod and the magi is not simply a matter of recognizing the star as revealing someone behind that star. The Byzantine antiphon says the magi were taught to worship.
True wise men not only see through nature to the one behind nature. They want to worship him.
Herod implicitly recognizes this. To pretend to be one of them, he asked them to bring him news, so that he too might worship. But wisdom is vindicated by her children. We think the magi hardly needed a warning in a dream not to return to Herod. Had they not read him, through his actions, his words and his eyes?
Wise men still seek the one behind the stars. Pope Francis quotes St. John Paul II: “for the believer, to contemplate creation is to hear a message, to listen to a paradoxical and silent voice.” [#85] We Christians do well to remember that not only in extraordinary ways but through countless daily aspects of the natural world, our common home, God is teaching us to worship him.