It’s a big place out there, astronomically speaking. Trillions of galaxies, a billion trillion (that’s the real number) of stars and planets, light-years of distance between them all, in a universe whose edges are unquantifiable and unimaginable.
From where we stand, peering up at the night sky, it’s easy to feel lost. Out there is infinity. We get the occasional visitor from its outer reaches — a stray asteroid, random meteor, or blip of a radio wave. But infinity generally leaves us alone. We can explore it, venture into it with a buccaneering spirit of daring. But just from watching it, it’s hard to say that the universe reciprocates our interest. It doesn’t matter how many stars we wish on; they don’t seem to wish back.
If you read the story of Jesus' birth with a cynical eye, the Star of Bethlehem doesn’t seem like much more than a divinely inspired plot device. After all, when the Magi's part in the story comes, they're in the East somewhere, gifts in hand with no map or guide, and God must have needed a way to get them to Jesus’ house. Some scholars argue that the star is a fulfillment of prophecy in Numbers 24:17. But just in terms of the narrative, it doesn’t seem to mean much. God could have led those Wise Men in a thousand different ways. He could have reused the pillar of fire from Exodus or sent over the same host of angels the shepherds saw.
So why did he choose a star?
Caught Up in Infinity
If there’s a quality about the world we can all understand, it’s the ease with which we can feel lost in it. Like a wave getting larger as it reaches shore, we don’t think much about the hugeness of the world — how the scale of it well and truly dwarfs us — until we feel it crash into us and sweep us under.
In many ways, college students feel this sense of being lost more clearly than most. Every day, a student walks through campus, lonely and unconnected, seeing nothing around them but hangouts and memories being made, and wonders how she fell through the cracks.
Or looks at his major and thinks, I don’t know what I want to be, but this isn’t it, dropping his head and despairing of how he lost his way in life so early.
Or scrolls the infinity of social media, bathing herself in never-ending reminders of her failures as a person: the fun she’s missing, the body she doesn’t have, the influence she’ll never get, the injustices she can’t fix in the places she’ll never go.
In those moments, and in whatever unique versions of them that we have all lived, hope can feel like every star in the night: an infinity away, indifferent and cold.
And that, I think, is why the Lord used a star to lead the Magi. It shows us a God who wants to be found.
Wanting to Be Found
From the beginning, God’s plan was never to stay anonymous. Even in his incarnation as a small human in a small country — a speck of a person in a speck on the map — he wouldn’t stay hidden, as if he could only be found by a select few who are good enough or smart enough, special enough or strong enough. In a world that feels like it doesn’t want us or need us, God hung a lantern in the heavens as a guide for the Wise Men and a sign for us: I won’t let you miss me. The forgiveness and love you’re longing for, the hope you’re scared doesn’t exist . . . you’ll have it.
Because I want to be found.
That’s God in the Epiphany story. From the cosmic endlessness whose apathy is symbolized by the trillions of stars burning away in its curtain of emptiness, God pulls one down to mark his place in our world and ours in his.
When the star rested over Jesus, I imagine it like a metaphysical hourglass with the sand flowing both ways. God poured the crushing, uncaring, unfeeling infinity of the universe down into a single star, and pushed the creation-renewing, life-giving, soul-pursuing infinity of himself up into the world through Jesus. His message was clear: no matter how vast the world seems or how unwanted you feel in it, I am here to be found. And wherever he is, there is hope.
We’re told that the starlight we see began its journey to earth billions of years ago. This season, take a moment to stargaze. See a trillion symbols of God rushing to this world and your heart, eager to be found. See yourself at the center of the hourglass, and be filled.
After a decade of chronic illness, I’ve learned how my body and heart speak the same language. The pain in my head tells of the twist in my heart. I’m still sleepless—mind, body, and soul. I wonder if your new realities feel sleepless, too?
Advent is full of the trappings of the coming of God. But often, among the church services, the charitable donations, and the renditions of “O Holy Night,” we miss God. Like Zechariah, we can be so busy creating space for God to dwell that we forget to prepare our own hearts.