Let's start with an obvious sign of Christmas - the Star of Bethlehem. The story is well known and depicted. Three wise men see a star in the East and follow it. They actually did get lost and ask for directions, which I find kind of funny considering all the jokes along those lines. They stopped in Jerusalem to ask Herod for his opinion, which he gave for a very self-serving and diabolical reason of his own - but that's part of another story, so we will leave that for now.
When I get past the Sunday school picture of a star over a stable, I start to wonder. Just how do you follow a star? The sun is a star, right? If I rise each morning and follow it to the East, I won't actually get that far before it's overhead and then behind me. To actually follow that star, I will walk endlessly back and forth. The rest of the heavenly stars "move" the same way though their relative distance makes it far less apparent to a casual observer.
The Bible makes it sound pretty matter of fact: they saw the star, packed their bags, remembered to bring a gift and there they are. Was star-following so common in those days that explanation wasn't even necessary? Was it something that wise men did routinely - rich wise men, that is. When was the last time you brought gold to a baby shower?
Back in the day, astronomy and astrology were one in the same. Their study of the stars was a scientific calling- serious business not destined for an obscure column on the comics page of the daily paper. Those famous, though unnamed kings, made a rigorous study of the movement of the night jewels using the zodiac as signpost and way of explanation. The heavens, then and now, for all their overwhelming vastness and solitude perform a well ordered dance. Almost like Someone orchestrated it. Hmmmm And when you can direct a dance on that scale, why not show off a bit and use your handiwork as a birth announcement for your only Son?
There are several theories about what the actual star was: a comet, super nova, conjunction of planets, or a mysterious fireball planted above a stable. Of all those possibilities, the last seems the least compelling. After all, if there was a "stable" light hovering over an outbuilding in Bethlehem, I think it would have attracted more than three travelers. (The shepherds having received an entirely different invitation.) Certainly the neighbors would have noticed as well, as would the un-neighborly, like Herod. That king, for all his paranoia, seemed pretty unaware until the celestial event was pointed out to him by the visiting royalty.
I can't explain the star - not in this blog or through any lifetime writings or efforts, though I did find some interesting theories at http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/star-of-bethlehem.shtml. What I can do, though, it wonder at the stars. How beautiful, how peaceful, how steady and reliable, yet so fluid and ever changing. The One who created the heavens and the earth, the One who brought His son to earth heralded His gift with His heavenly handiwork. I don't need to figure out how to follow a star. I'll follow the Babe instead.