An angel and a star - shepherds and Magi

Sun, Dec 17th 2017 08:00 am

What's on the top of your Christmas tree: an angel or a star? And what would the Christmas scene be like if we only had Luke's Gospel?  Or only Matthew's? Only Luke has the angel appearing to the shepherds, while only Matthew has the star leading the Magi.

In Luke's narrative, consider the angel's message to the shepherds and the shepherds themselves. In 2:8-9, we read of shepherds "keeping watch over their flocks" and an angel appearing to them with the message, "I proclaim to you good news of great joy." "Proclaiming good news" is literally "good-newsing to you." "Good news" is more often translated "gospel," and proclaiming good news is the meaning of "evangelizing," so the angel was evangelizing the shepherds. Their response was to go with haste to see the sign, a swaddled baby in a manger. The manger, as "the feeding place of the flock," forecasts the meals of Jesus and the Lord's Supper, important scenes in Luke's Gospel.

After seeing the sign, the shepherds made known the saying about the child and their own experience of this sign. We often hear that the shepherds were common, if not poor, folk. Perhaps so. But in the OT, the shepherd image is used to refer to the leaders of the people. Thus, the Lucan shepherds might also represent the very early Christians who experienced Jesus or heard the "good news," accepted it, and spread it by word and deed. Can we relate to the shepherds as our models of evangelization?

In Matthew, we are familiar with the star and the Magi representing the gentiles coming to faith in Jesus. Yet, the star and the travelers from the East also speak to our experience in a global world today. The star echoed the oracle of Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet from the east described in Numbers 24:7. When an enemy king asked him to curse Moses and the Israelites, Balaam instead announced that in the future, "a star shall come forth out of Jacob and a scepter (ruler) out of Israel." This star was understood to be about first David, and later Jewish hopes for a new Davidic king. In fact, in AD 135, a revolutionary leader was nicknamed "Bar Kochba," "Son of the Star." Matthew used a non-Israelite seer and his sign, the star, to speak to non-Israelites, the Magi.

Matthew's Magi, contrary to popular belief, were not kings. Their number was not three and, sadly, there are no camels in the story. Kings and camels come from other OT texts and are read into Matthew. I like to tease others by saying one of the Magi could have been a woman, because in Genesis, the matriarch Rebecca came from the east to meet Isaac riding on a camel. The Magi were probably astrologers from the region of Syria or Iraq. Their presence in the story speaks to the gentiles' faith in Jesus, but they also confirm that there is revelation through natural creation for some persons in their quest for the divine. Mary and Joseph welcome the foreigners into their home who then worshipped Jesus; hospitality also enabled the faith of the non-Israelites.  

Where are we in this picture? We are heirs of the Magi. But what of the light of the star? Do we glimpse the "light of the divine" in followers of other world religions today? And is hospitality our approach to those of other faiths?  

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