After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ . . . When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Matthew 2.1–2, 10–12
I am a stargazer. I have always had my head in the clouds.
When I was a boy I used to lie on the flat roof of our house and gaze at the stars. I would stretch out my arms and legs as wide as they would go so that I too might be a star, and that they might gaze at me. My mother called me a dreamer. She couldn’t understand the patterns of the night sky, did not even know there was anything to be read in their gently changing constellations. But it is the moon that marks the months and pulls the tides. It is the stars that direct the traveller. on a stormy night, when the fierce waves billow and surge, the sailor has nothing else to lean on.
I have come to this conclusion. the darkness is my friend. For in the night the stars come out to shine and guide.
Most people learn to look down. not me. I would not let my horizon shift. So there are obstacles in the path? Let them trip me up. Better to keep looking upwards, to chase after dreams and stumble, than only ever see the few steps in front of you and spend a lifetime going round in circles, getting nowhere fast. that is me: a dream-chaser, a stargazer, a misfit and a seer, a student of the cosmos and the galaxies. But I was also cautious. I liked to look at the stars and interpret their movements.
But I did not follow them myself. It was easier to advise others. And my wisdom was valuable. People would seek me out. My fluency in the stars made me a trusted navigator in the affairs of men. Admirals, politicians, governors and kings, those who wanted direction turned to me. But I never travelled myself. I became one who counselled the mighty and directed the strong. I knew how to get to the ends of the earth. But I stayed in my own chambers and drew the charts that others would follow.
But I never lost the art of gazing. the little boy who climbed onto roofs and stared at stars and dreamed of where they led was still alive in me. My dilemma was this: everything I had ever learned had come from contemplation. But I had never learned to act.
So when I saw a new star rising, I knew that it was my chance to change, my chance to follow, to awaken the dream inside me. For this star had to mean something. It had to lead some- where. And so I set out. not very well prepared for travel, but with servants to help me and a purse on my belt, I took to the road.
It was a joyous thing to be moving, to be actually doing some- thing rather than just plotting a course for others. things happen on the road. All sorts of encounters and adventures. there were other travellers too. Stargazers like me who searched the sky to see what promises it held. We found each other. We looked into the mirror of our own histories and saw a congruence of mind and will, and we banded together for conversation and for protection and for the simple pleasures of companionship and common purpose. When everyone else was safe in bed, we were on the road, moving westwards, following the star. It was a hard journey, and a cold coming we had of it. there were some who made us welcome. But there were many more who feared the stranger, especially ones whose bearing seemed to suggest wealth and power. What armies may trail in their wake? And there were bandits, and barren lands, and cold, cold nights.
We only made one mistake. And it was nearly fatal. At the last step we broke the habit of a lifetime and looked down. We suddenly trusted our own charts more than the star that had led us so patiently. We allowed ourselves, for a moment, to be enticed by the wealth and power that we thought we had left behind, but perhaps were still seeking. After many months of journeying, we arrived in the troubled province of Palestine, and seeing the star settle went straight to the palace of the king. How foolish we were. How unsettled by the beguiling glamour and seductive spin of powerful men. Here was a man who could see no further than his own beautifully manicured hand. And we went to him! Someone whose strength was completely consumed with the necessity of holding onto what he had – and at all costs. We quickly saw through him, despite his pathetic efforts to ensnare us. But we knew that we were also in his hands, that he would use us. For he only wanted to hear what he needed in order to subvert and control. there is nothing more dangerous than a weak man with too much power. I don’t suppose he has ever looked upwards in his life. Sleeping on his sumptuous mattress, wrapped in the extravagance of silk, that was my most uncomfortable night in years. So when we left in the morning we quickly resolved never to return, and thankful for the word of his ancient prophecy we made our way to Bethlehem.
Oh, how the order of the universe changes. In the chill twilight of a winter’s day we arrived in the town where the star rested. It didn’t take many enquiries to find that there was indeed a mother and a newborn son. Behind the inn, at the edge of the town, was an outhouse, not much more than a stable, but sheltered from the rain and from the worst of the east wind that blew across the plain. We knocked on the door, feeling both excited and also vaguely stupid. What had we come to see? What was the purpose of our journey? We hardly knew. We were men compelled. old men behaving like children, travel- ling on a whim with no particular destination in mind. Wise men, behaving like fools, believing that stars led somewhere.
A man about our age opened the door. He looked weary and wary. But there was a steadfast kindness in his eye that was also prepared to trust. He asked us our business, and even though we had come all this way believing that the star we followed presaged the birth of a king, to each of us, in that moment, it seemed very foolish. So we just said a child, we heard a child is born; we saw a star, we followed it; we don’t know what it means, but it led us here. He opened the door to us. He opened wide his arms to us. He welcomed us in. And there, in a dark corner, wrapped in blankets and huddled against the cold and the clamour of the coming night, was the child, cradled in his mother’s arms.
And whose heart is not lifted by such a sight? I don’t mind telling you that my mind was whirring with all sorts of muddled and delighted thoughts. the tender beauty of the child and its mother, but also what we had left that morning.
Why was Herod so frightened of this child? Why had he been so keen for us to return, and to tell him where the child was? What threat to him was this? And what were those ancient prophecies that his councillors had so solemnly quoted? What did this child’s birth mean?
We introduced ourselves. We went closer. We were tongue- tied and nervous. We didn’t know whether to say everything or nothing. So we were silent for a while. Just looking. But we had brought gifts. Gifts for a king. they seemed somewhat out of place in the cramped squalor of these surroundings. At the same time we realized they were perfect. We were part of a drama so much bigger than ourselves; something we would probably never understand properly. We simply had to carry on faithfully playing our part.
We looked at each other, and without speaking rummaged in our bags to retrieve the gifts. Gold – for gold belongs to a king. Sweet-smelling incense from Mesopotamia – for a king is also a priest and one who intercedes with gods as well as men. And ointment of myrrh – for death and birth belong together, framing the life of every man. We laid the gifts before the still unstirring child. We smiled inanely and shrugged our shoulders, for even the expensive beauty of the precious things we had brought paled against the greater light of newborn life. After all, is there anything more beautiful in all the world? We saw it clearly that night, though we didn’t know then how exceptional this beauty was to be.
Then the mother and father told us their own strange story. our tongues were unshackled by it. We explained about the star and the travelling, but also of Herod and what we felt for sure were his murderous intentions. We talked into the night, then slept, huddled against our animals for warmth in the makeshift shelter of that outhouse.
In the middle of the night the baby stirred. It was a painful, plaintive cry, and for a few moments went unheeded. We lay in the blackness of the night listening to it. His mother woke. She quickly reached out to him. Her presence was reassurance. He was soothed by the warmth of her touch and the generous abundance of her breast. I saw his little fingers curl and grip his mother’s thumb. And she stroked his cheek, and sang softly to him, a foreign song in words I did not know, but it was vast and beautiful, like a song sung in Eden itself.
It was the most common thing in the entire world: a new- born child. It was also the most beautiful. And somehow, in that moment, we knew that something special was unfolding before us. But we couldn’t explain it. We had come looking for a birth, the birth of a king, and we had found a birth; we had found something momentous and lovely, but it didn’t fit the categories that we had envisaged or expected. We had found a child – just a child – but one who already struck fear into the hearts of powerful men, and whose parents told fantastic stories of angels and shepherds, and of God visiting the earth. Jews do indeed believe strange things – they are famous for it – but this was stranger still. not just one God, but one God come down to earth, one God sharing the life of men. Was this what the stars had led us to: the heavens themselves come down to earth?
As mother and child held each other and drifted back into sleep, I found I couldn’t settle. Something was stirring me. I looked out through the gap in the door to the night sky. the stars were blazing in their intricate and myriad beauty. What did they mean? I no longer had any idea. I could read them and read them, but they would only lead back to the vanity of my own conclusions. So this is the question I am left with: what is wisdom? What does it actually mean to be wise? I thought it meant knowledge and information, the ability to work things out, speed of tongue and mind. I thought it meant ideas or even vision. these were concepts I was secure with, things I could return to if I wished.
But they all seem empty now. to be able to name the stars and plot their courses through the sky, or read the scrolls handed down by those who came before us, weren’t these just skills that some people have and other people learn, and wasn’t it all by chance? All the wisdom of the world seemed vanity. Were my particular skills any better or any more valuable than the labours of human toil, to till the soil or carry water from the well? And at least these brought forth actual results, and were tangible in ways my labours could never match. or the craftsman’s endeavour? Was it better or worse than my knowledge of the sky and the seasons? I was filled with doubt and anguish then. I had travelled so as to put my knowledge into action, but had found my knowledge emptied out. Instead of a king, a child. And in that child, a glimpse of rare and uncomfortable beauty. In the restful and yet also troubling moments of that night, seeing the bonds of love between mother and child, I wondered if true wisdom might be this: to know what matters, and to rest secure in the peaceful affirmations of loving and of being loved.
When I did sleep, I dreamed. terrible dreams of what hateful men would do to this child, and of how the horrors of the world rise up, and those who have been let down by love lash out at all that’s lovely. I saw King Herod in my dream. I saw his thirst for vengeance and his terrible intent. And the dreams confirmed our own darkest suspicions. We needed to leave. And so did the family. We had to travel a different way, far from Herod’s palace and over the mountains, on paths that could not be traced. We would cover the tracks of our travelling, but we knew that we would always bear the marks of this strange and beautiful meeting. the whole direction of our lives was changed.
We said our goodbyes in the harsh bitterness of the dawn. the road ahead of us will be treacherous and hard. But I tell you now, as we turn our faces away from Bethlehem, it doesn’t feel like an ending. Something has begun here, some- thing that is to do with love. I cannot tell you any more than that; strangest of all, there is nothing more to tell.
• Which person in the story did you most relate to?
• What surprised, shocked or delighted you the most?
• How has this changed your understanding of the Christmas story?