Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas: The Star of Bethlehem

Given that I’ve already posted about Christmas, I hadn’t really planned to write about it again but sometimes my Muse has other ideas. I was lying in bed yesterday trying to sleep (I work a lot of nights at the moment and I don’t find sleeping during the day that easy) and I found myself thinking about the three wise camels men and the star (maybe it was just a side-effect of reading Allie Brosh’s hilarious blog about her childhood Christmas).

At the outset, let me first state my basic position on the whole Christmas story. As a trained historian and a former Christian who spent quite a few years studying theology, I don’t think any serious claims for the exact historicity of the Nativity accounts can be made. Our only sources for the Christmas story are the gospels of Matthew and Luke (Mark, the author of the earliest gospel, doesn’t seem to have known anything of it) and not even the most convinced Christian can argue that they are objective, unbiased sources. There are practically no independent sources which confirm with certainty any of the events describing the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (not Bethlehem!) in the gospels.

I will immediately add that I don’t think this discussion is important anyway. The idea of “objective truth” which we use, particularly with regard to history, was unknown 2,000 years ago and it’s not fair to judge the chroniclers of old by standards which developed long after they were born. Moreover, for Christian believers, it is the meaning and significance of the stories which is really the important thing. For non-Christians, or former Christians, the value of the Christmas stories are their use of deep symbols which may, perhaps, be seen as making statements about fundamental human truths (and you don’t even have to be a Jungian to find this way of thinking productive).

So, to come back to the Magi and the star of Bethlehem. For as long as people have been people, we’ve been fascinated by the night sky. The story of the wise men from the east brings the whole ancient tradition of astrology into the Christmas story. Fascinated by the movement of the stars, people have always supposed that the movement of the stars are intimately connected with events on earth. If the Son of God was born it was unthinkable that such an event would not be reflected in the heavens and astrologers would not notice it. So, for Matthew, obviously some did and acted on their knowledge. He has them coming from “the east,” as Persia was an area where, religiously, astrology had a long and respected tradition. Incidentally, less than an hour down the Autobahn from where I live, the bones of the Magi rest in Cologne Cathedral. They were discovered - along with hundreds of other sacred remains - by Helena, the mother of Constantine, who made a giant relic-hunting tour of what are now Israel and Palestine at the beginning of the fourth century. After her tour the children of thousands of con-men in the area went to bed well-fed for a long time, thanking God in their prayers, no doubt, for the largesse of the gullible Empress-Mother.

Unlike many people, I don’t believe in astrology (another thing I don’t believe in J). Its foundations are in terracentric views of the cosmos which we know today are simply not true. The patterns the stars make, and their movements – particularly in relation to each other – beautiful as they are, are purely coincidental, having only to do with the position of the Earth revolving around the sun, a star in the outer regions of one of the spiral arms of our galaxy. But – like our attitude to historical facts which I referred to earlier – this is knowledge which people two millennia ago simply didn’t have. As a result, it was just as logical for them to think that the movement of the stars reflected and foretold human events as that malaria was caused by bad air. The issue of why many people today still take astrology seriously rather than just regarding it as fun is a different one, but I won’t go into that here.

Still, there is something important in the meme of the wise men following their star; it says something to me about hope, about courage, about the willingness to accept the consequences of one’s convictions and act on them, wherever it may lead one – even if that is into uncertainty and danger.

And, having left astrology behind, I have another hope looking at the stars. Somehow, if we don’t succeed in wrecking our planet and destroying ourselves in the next century or so, we’re going to be out there too. Living in space, living on other planets, planets revolving around other stars. Moving on, moving out, following visions and dreams. Following new stars which are all really only the same star the Magi followed – the star of courage and hope, the star of Bethlehem.

All who believe in courage and hope …

All who believe that the small things in life, like the birth of a child, any child, can be the most important thing on earth …

All who believe in peace …

All who find their way to this blog over the holidays …

I wish you all a very happy Christmas.

(two hours after original posting: Ooops, nearly forgot the music. I probably shouldn't do this posting stuff after working the night before going to bed! Here's a Chris de Burgh early classic - with yet another "alien" take on Christmas ...)


  1. Thanks for this lovely Christmas gift. Merry Christmas to you , dear friend. Molly

  2. A very Merry Christmas Francis ..and to all that find hope in the simple miracles of life..:)

  3. I have hope for ll those things too.

    Peace and blessings this Christmas Eve.

  4. You are such a fine writer, Francis. Thank you for this. Hope and faith are often connected to a religious way of thinking but they don't have to be.

    Merry Christmas, Blessed Yule, Happy Solstice...most of all, peace on earth is what I hope for.



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