Advent Blog Tour, Day 21: “Do you see what I see?”

December 21, 2010

Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337), "Adoration of the Magi"

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.” Matthew 2:1-6 (CEB)

A couple of years ago, I visited a parishioner who was convalescing at home after a debilitating illness. He was a former NASA scientist—with a Ph.D. from Harvard—who was also an amateur astronomer. (“Amateur” in the truest sense of the word—he didn’t need compensation to pursue his love for the stars.) To pass the time and keep his sanity during his long recovery, he engaged in some astronomical research.

“I’ve made a discovery,” he told me with excitement as he greeted me at the door. “I know the date on which Jesus was born!”

“Really?” He sensed skepticism in my voice. He then qualified his earlier words: Maybe he didn’t know the exact date, but he had a narrow range of dates, within a couple of weeks, given certain assumptions. “Look, I’ll show you.” He explained his findings using a star chart (which I had never seen before but reminded me of the rotating Led Zeppelin III album cover), the Bible, and various clippings from astronomy journals.

Surprisingly, it all seemed very… plausible to me (who knows almost nothing about astronomy). And he wasn’t a crackpot. He said that it wasn’t actually a star, per se, but a morning star—Jupiter, I believe—which would have been visible to the magi at this particular time in this particular region. Contrary to popular illustrations of the Star of Bethlehem and Christmas songs like “Do You Hear What I Hear,” this astral phenomenon was not something just anyone would have noticed. But for men like these magi who were, for their pre-modern era, experts in astronomy, and who made their living studying the night sky, this would have been an incredibly curious event.

I enjoyed listening to his argument for this particular date. (I wish I’d at least written the date down!) Of course there are other theories about what the star was and when it was. I’m agnostic on theories about the “star.” But I’m not agnostic on its existence: I believe the magi saw something—it’s just that that the event is so remote, how can we possibly know what it was?

Regardless, I appreciate that most of these theories—and most Christians who argue for them—happily describe a natural, rather than supernatural, event. Through this natural event, God was speaking to the magi. I like that! We don’t need to resort to some conventionally “miraculous” explanation that defies the laws of physics in order to believe that God is actively working in the world.

Miracles happen all the time, regardless whether we can "explain" them naturally.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in miracles. But if we limit the “miraculous” only to those things that we can’t otherwise explain, then we risk becoming practical Deists. We risk buying into the seductive Enlightenment myth of a distant, watchmaker God who set the universe in motion and then stepped away to let it run on its own. Oh, sure… God may occasionally intervene with a miracle here and there, from outside this otherwise closed universe. But mostly God is absent and uninvolved.

While this view of God is as pervasive today as it is contrary to biblical and Christian teaching, it’s not a view shared by the magi. For them, every moment was imbued with the possibility of encountering God. That being the case, they waited and watched for God, discerning his presence in the ordinary, the mundane, and the everyday.

If only we could follow their example! Not by becoming astronomers, obviously—although if we are astronomers, we shouldn’t be surprised to find God in that area of our lives, as well!

If we could follow their example, we might learn to see signposts pointing to God everywhere.

In his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster describes a worship service he was leading in someone’s home on a hot summer evening.

The doors were left open in hopes of a breeze. At one point in the meeting, I encouraged everyone to “wait on the Lord” in listening silence. The stillness was quickly interrupted by the homeowner’s cat scratching at the screen door, seeking entrance. The more I tried to ignore the cat, the worse it got. I prayed that God would do something—send the cat away, magically open the door, and other more drastic prayers that I shall not mention, since you may have a fondness for cats. (Strangely, it never occurred to me to get up and let the cat in!)

Later in the evening, someone mentioned the cat. Everyone began sharing how distracting the cat had been on their ability to focus on God. Everyone, that is, except Bill—a former missionary filled with wisdom and the Holy Spirit. Bill sat pensive, uttering not a word. “Bill,” I queried, “what are you thinking?” “Oh,” he spoke deliberately, “I was just wondering what God wanted to say to us through the cat?”

I’m not quite where Bill is in this story—maybe not even close. But I’d like to be!

Are we aware of God’s presence in the ordinary, the mundane, and the everyday? Is God trying to get our attention? Are we paying attention?

[For more on miracles, see this post and this post.]

This post is part of the Advent Blog Tour, which features Advent/Christmas reflections from 25 different bloggers using scripture from the new Common English Bible translation.

Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 86.

5 Responses to “Advent Blog Tour, Day 21: “Do you see what I see?””

  1. Lisa Says:

    As always, your words make me think. I too want to learn to “see God” in the ordinary things of life–such as our kids arguing?

  2. Jane Rogers Says:

    Had to share this true story with you! I bought a book in an antique store some 7-8 years ago. The book was Henry Van Dyke’s The Story of The Other Wise Man, published first in 1895. I only paid $4.00 for the book! I had gotten the book off the shelf to read at Christmas. It’s a wonderful story, but the real jewel was a letter tucked into the pages. The letter was addressed to “Judge F. M. Bird, Atlanta, GA, dated Dec. 21, 1953, and was from “Frank G. Thomas”. I tried to do some research on both these men. Could only find a little about Judge Bird.
    In the letter, Frank Thomas wrote, “Surely there is a song in the air and a star in the sky as this Christmas season dawns. The following message from the pen of Henry Van Dyke on the subject of Keeping Christmas seems in keeping with the spirit of the day.
    “Are you willing to forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you; to ignore what the world owes you, and think what you owe the world; to put your rights in the background, and your duties in the middle distance, and your chance to do a little more than your duty in the foreground; to see that your fellow men are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy; to owe that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life; to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness–are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.”
    What a wonderful surprise and what a wonderful message for us all!
    Merry Christmas!
    Jane

    • Katie Z. Says:

      God speaks to us out of so many tiny moments in our lives… thank you so much for this post – it was a blessing…

      and thank you Jane for that amazing letter!

  3. amy Says:

    Thanks, Brent, for this reflection. I have always found it amazing that God chose a star to mark Christ’s place of birth. An important reminder not to get tunnel vision but pay attention to the wonders – even the ordinary ones – that are all around us. Or we will miss the most essential things.

  4. J A Carter Says:

    “For them, every moment was imbued with the possibility of encountering God.” Everything can be a sacrament, a means of God’s grace, to us, and we can be sacraments to every situation we are in and every person we meet. What a great reflection! It really makes me think. Thanks!


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