The Star Announces the King - Gordon Conwell

The Star Announces the King

By Rev. Dr. William David Spencer

“Yes, I saw it – a strange portent, as if the morning stars had converged on one spot – as if all the handiwork of the heavens were announcing something about their great Crafter – but what? And that message was moving, one – wait – perhaps two degrees from the look of its bright tail, a steady flight from the east to the south and veering out to the west toward the coastal land of Judea.

I stared at it in amazement, as Melchior was fumbling around for my second-best telescope. And then his huge presence was beside me. “See it? See it?”

How could I miss it?

“Did you see it last night?” he demanded.

“No,” I said, “and last night was very clear.”

“Me either.”

We stood for a while until our arms began to ache, and, when I could no longer hold up the telescope, I went back inside for my tripod, but, first, I got down my copy of the Treatise on Comets by Chaeremon the Stoic.

I spread the scroll out on my worktable so Melchior could translate it too and we read all about how comets were heavenly signs that – and I quote – “something wonderful and great was about to happen.”

Then my friend unrolled the scroll he’d brought. As I suspected, it was Aristotle’s theory about comets as objects between the earth and the moon – a nice natural balance to Chaeremon.

“What do you think it means?” he asked me.

“Well,” I said, “somewhere up on the shelf I have a scroll by Tsochhiu, the Chinese astronomer who lived some 300 years ago, and he says: ‘A comet is like a broom, signaling the sweeping away of evil.’ So, my guess is that this portent spells disaster for one king and the joyful birth of another – a new reign for…” –  I looked back out at the trajectory of the comet  – “Yes, I think for the Jews…”

I have always been fascinated by the star over Bethlehem and the wise magi who followed it to pay homage to Jesus. In fact, I’ve been so fascinated about it I wrote a sermon and a creative monologue for the congregation of Pilgrim Church in Beverly, MA1 titled “We, Three: Balthasar’s Account”2  (excerpted above).

One of the great blessings God has given us being part of a school like Gordon-Conwell and its emphasis on the global church is that we learn so much more about Christian traditions than if we were simply limited to Western sources. A Chinese student from Gordon College, whom Gordon-Conwell graciously allowed to stay in our student housing (and who had begun attending Pilgrim Church), put me in touch with Chong Kei Thong’s book titled Faith of our Fathers: God in Ancient China.3 Dr. Thong quotes from the Astronomy Records of the Book of the Han Dynasty (covering 206 BC to AD 220):

In the second month of the second year, the comet was out of Altair for more than 70 days. [Altair is the brightest star in the constellation Aquila.] It is said, “Comets appear to signify the old being replaced by the new.” Altair, the sun, the moon and the five stars are in movement to signify the beginning of a new epoch; the beginning of a new year, a new month and a new day. The appearance of this comet undoubtedly symbolizes change. The extended appearance of this comet indicates that this is of great importance.

Noting the date correlates with March 9 to April 6-5 BC, Dr. Thong explains: “This timeframe is highly significant because most experts place the birth of Jesus at 5 to 4 BC.” Thus, the “14 night observers and three day observers who were on duty in shifts” in China watched the same astronomical phenomenon as did the Magi, and interpreted it in a similar way. The birth of this unknown child in an obscure Jewish town was noted by far-off astronomers and scholars to be indeed of “great importance.” So, even before any early church missionaries announced the good news of Jesus, the star itself proclaimed to the east and west the arrival of the King of kings, the One whom we should seek, as did the Magi, and to whom we owe joyful allegiance.

[1] My wife, Dr. Aída Spencer, and I helped plant this church with other Gordon-Conwell faculty and students.
[2] Read the entire piece, “We, Three: Balthasar’s Account, A Creative Monologue on Matthew 2.”
[3] (Shanghai China: China Publishing Group Orient Publishing Center, 2006), pp. 312-13. See also Colin J. Humphreys, Professor of Materials Science, University of Cambridge, “The Star of Bethlehem, a Comet in 5 BC and the Date of Christ’s Birth,” Tyndale Bulletin, vol. 43.1, May 1992, pp. 31-56.

Dr. William David Spencer is distinguished adjunct professor of theology and the arts. He has compiled over three hundred publications, including articles, editorials, poems, short stories, textbooks, and trade non-fiction and fiction which have won nearly two dozen writing and editing awards. His latest book, Three in One: Analogies of the Trinity, came out in November 2022 (Kregel).