A person who does science looks closely at, and thinks carefully about, the details of the natural world. A science person might study how the environment affects the development of bees, or study the structure of molecules, or theorize about the origins of the universe. But in each of these cases, that person probably has more interest in the details of the natural world than does the average person, and so is a bit of a “nerd” (if you will pardon the term). Now, do you know the story of the “nerds” who were at the Nativity?
Consider these verses from Matthew:
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem….” Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
Artistic depictions of the Star of Bethlehem, like many found on many Christmas cards, often show (for example) the magi crossing a desert on camels at night, illuminated by a brilliant celestial beacon. Those depictions make the Star out to be something that no one could possibly miss.
But do those depictions make sense? Matthew says Herod was troubled by what he heard from the magi. Moreover, Herod had to secretly call the magi to find out when the Star had appeared. Were the Star a brilliant beacon, Herod would not have needed to ask the magi that. Everyone would know. Everyone would have already been troubled by the Star. It would be the talk of Jerusalem.
Since Herod and his advisors knew nothing about the Star, it could not have been something obvious. But Herod must have actually been able to see the Star, once the magi pointed it out, or else he certainly would have considered the magi to be crackpots or charlatans, and had them thrown out.
I am an astronomer, and I can tell you that astronomers are all too familiar with things in the sky that no one else besides “us nerds” can see, until we point those things out.
“Oh, there’s Saturn,” we say. “Saturn?” comes the reply, “How do you know that? It just looks like a star. I would have never even noticed it.”
“Look at the difference in color between Arcturus, Vega and Antares,” we remark. “I never noticed that stars had colors,” we hear back, “and which one is Vega?”
The magi were the “astronomy nerds” who saw the Star of Bethlehem. They were people who looked closely at, and thought carefully about, the details of the natural world. Then they pointed out what they saw to others. When you see the magi around the Christmas crèche, think about them and their nerdy interest in the sky that brought them to Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that there were science people at the Nativity. That is very cool.
Chris Graney is both a parishioner of St. Louis Bertrand Church in Louisville, and an “astronomy nerd” of the Specola Vaticana, the Vatican’s astronomical observatory.