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The Bethlehem Star, the Magi, and St. Dismas

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him.

--Matthew 2: 1-2

While preparing to pray before we light up the star above our Nativity Scene (Belén), we engage in small family talk. The topic: our best gifts.

“What’s the best gift I gave you for Christmas?” I ask my son.



“It’s the only thing I remember.” Everybody is in a picayune mood.

I turn to my spouse: “What do you want best from us this Christmas?”

“Nothing. Just be good and behave.”

I change the topic: “How did the Three Kings start this gift-giving thing?”

In my early childhood I always looked forward to the twelfth night after Christmas – the Eve of the Epiphany. It was tradition for us kids to put our shoes outside the window and expect to find them early next morning topped with gifts, courtesy of the Magi.

The story of the Magi never fails to baffle me. Who were these men? Where in the East did they come from? How did they get to Bethlehem?

More important: what was this Star of Bethlehem? Of the billions of stars in the heavens, what was this star that stood out that silent night and positioned itself directly over this little town? Was there such a star in the first place?

This much I know. Since ancient times, we human beings have always been fascinated by the universe in which we lived. The pageant of the planets and the stars, the rising and setting of the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, the succession of the seasons -- these were not only observable phenomena, but in many ways realities that intrigued our early ancestors’ daily life.

At the same time, I was also taught that there were wise persons who scanned the heavens for clues as to the nature of the universe and its relation to our lives. They were called Magi or Wise Men, as St. Matthew aptly employed the term. The word itself is of Greek origin. These men “from the East” may have been members of highly advanced priestly orders of Persia, Media, Chaldea, or Babylonia, we’re not too sure. For sure, the word “Magic” and “Magician” are derived from Magi, by magician meaning possessors of knowledge of nature’s laws.

On the science side of it, Professor Grant Matthews, an astrophysicist of the University of Notre Dame who is currently doing work on dark matter and white dwarfs, concurs with the Biblical text. What strikes me about Prof. Matthews, who feels “a kindred connection to the ancient Magi” is his opinion that the star that guided the Magi was a unique planetary alignment that may never be seen again. Now that did give me pause.

I am not too conversant with the intricacies of the technical details, but the idea he presents concerns an extraordinary alignment at that time, an astronomical event he has been studying for more than ten years. This is the rare alignment of the sun, Jupiter, the moon, and Saturn that were all in Aries; while Venus was in Pisces, and Mercury and Mars were in Taurus.

According to him, when the Magi discovered that Aries was the location of the vernal equinox, they interpreted it as a sign that a great king was born in the area of Judea. It was an event they had long anticipated by reading the heavens for a long time.

Anyway, while on their way to find where the newly born King was, they stopped by the territory of King Herod with whom they spoke to inquire about a newly born King. Herod did not like the news. He told them to let him know on their way back the whereabouts of this newborn King so he too could pay homage.

The Wise Men found Jesus and lay before him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the momentous event now beautifully depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece The Adoration of the Magi.

On their journey back, however, the Magi suspected that something was not quite right about the manner Herod spoke to them. So they took another route.

Not hearing from them, Herod ordered his soldiers to search for the newborn King, but to no avail. He then ordered his soldiers to kill all children under the age of two, now observed as Holy Innocents Day.

The news of the killings traveled fast. Upon learning about Herod’s wrath, Joseph (warned by an angel) and Mary with the baby Jesus decided to escape to another country – Egypt.

Now this: Of the number of legends surrounding the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, this one stands out to me as the most inspiring.

After several days of traveling and evading the soldiers of Herod, the Holy family approached a desolate place in Gaza, the last town before Egypt, when a gang of robbers attacked them.

The leader of the gang not only wanted to rob but also to kill all three of them. One young thief, Dismas, saw the Holy Child and was struck by a sudden compassion that drove him to exclaim:

“Do not harm them!”

The robbers were dumbfounded.

So deep a pity welled up in his heart so that, instead of harming them, Dismas offered the weary Family a place in his hut for the night and food and drink the next day for their journey. His parting words:

“Remember me, O Holy Child, when I, too, am in grave danger.”

Many years later, Dismas found himself condemned to die on the cross beside Jesus Himself. Little did this thief realize that he would receive the Greatest Gift of all.

And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23: 43)

Jesus did not forget.

As we bow our heads in prayer now, I think of the many refugees fleeing from danger, the homeless and the hungry, the doors slammed before their faces. I think of the ageing parents not welcome by their own children. I cannot help seeing in their faces the faces of the Holy Family.

I think of the good thief, Saint Dismas, of the power of kindness, and of the reward Our Lord repaid him a thousandfold with the Greatest Gift of all, the Gift of Eternal Life.

“Shall we light up the belén now?” my son prepares to turn on the switch to the Bethlehem Star.

Suddenly the once Silent Night in the dark hills of the little town of Bethlehem is ablaze with the birth of the King of kings, as a great army of angels appear in the skies singing Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of goodwill.


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