Of all the symbols related to Christmas, the most meaningful for me is undoubtedly the star.
The star radiates majesty and mystery. Perched high atop a roof or tree, silently overlooking the frenzy of the season, it doesn’t judge, coerce, or demand attention. It is just there, waiting patiently for the world to look up and receive its message of hope.
Mentioned in only one passage of scripture (Matthew 2:1-12), the star seems to appear with purpose and move with intelligence, almost like a living character in the story. When the promised Messiah is born, the star appears to the Magi, but it does not at first lead them to him; instead it apparently disappears or is hidden for awhile, because they have to go to Jerusalem and ask where to find “the king of the Jews” (v. 2). After they learn the prophets foretold he would be born in Bethlehem, the star reappears, to their great joy (v. 10). Matthew says it “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” (v. 9).
It went ahead of them, and then stopped at a specific spot? What kind of star does that? It almost seems to have a mind of its own.
To me, its rare behavior indicates that the star was a supernatural phenomenon, ordered by God to mark a supernatural event—an event like no other in history: the coming of the Savior.
The first-century Jews were in desperate need of a savior. They were oppressed from without by a Roman empire that neither understood nor cared about what was important to them. They were oppressed from within by a system of religious laws which were impossible to keep. It was a time of uncertainty, violence, and hopelessness. God had been silent for four centuries since the last Old Testament prophet. The promise of the Messiah was ancient history, distant and forgotten.
They must have wondered if God had abandoned them—or if he even cared.
Then Jesus was born, and God sent the star to point the way to him.
The world today is also in desperate need of a savior. In our human arrogance, we think we are doing okay—but look at the headlines. We are not okay. We are lost in darkness and brokenness.
But how does that relate to the star? Isn’t the star just an irrelevant symbol of an ancient story? What difference could it possibly make in our dark world today?
I think the star still matters, because it shows God’s love and care. He used it to provide three gifts that are always desperately needed: anticipation, guidance, and the fulfillment of his promise.
First, the star created anticipation. Apparently the Magi had studied prophecies about the Messiah and had connected the dots. They recognized the appearance of the star as such an epic event that they eagerly packed their things, left their home, and traveled for about two years (according to the report in Matthew 2:16) to follow it to the place where he was. Imagine their excitement as they got closer and closer to finding him.
Anticipation creates excitement that God has something good in store. Without anticipation, we have nothing to look forward to.
Second, the star provided guidance. It led the Magi from far-off lands to the promised Messiah, just as the pillar of fire led the Hebrews (Exodus 13:21) from the Red Sea to the Promised Land. Both the star and the fire led their followers to a specific destination, chosen by God. And metaphorically, both showed the way of deliverance, out of darkness and into the light.
Guidance provides a sense that God is leading. Without guidance, we wander aimlessly in the dark.
Third, and best of all, the star marked the fulfillment of God’s promise. From the prophecies, the Magi knew about the promised Messiah, and they recognized the star as the supernatural sign of his birth. The star proved that God, who had seemed to be absent or oblivious for so long, not only makes promises; he also keeps them.
Anticipation, guidance, and the fullfillment of God’s promise—we need those three gifts now more than ever. For the Magi, the star was the light which guided them to Jesus. For us, it is a reminder that God will accomplish his plan for deliverance, even when we cannot see it.