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The Nova
Written May 8, 2024

Hello.  My name is Balthazar.  I live in the old city of Babylon, where I am a magus.  I study the stars, or astra, and the stories they can tell us, or logia.  Therefore I'm called an astro-loger.  Some call me a wise man, and who am I to disagree?

A couple years ago, not long after sunset on the night of the Winter Solstice, I looked to the western sky and saw a star, a bright one, that had not been there the night before!  It was a new star, a nova.  According to our astrological studies, such signs are good omens.  We know that a new star heralds the birth of a new ruler.

This nova faded over the next few nights.  It seemed to have been over the kingdom of Judea, which lies near the great sea about 750 miles west of Babylon.  That land is part of the Roman Empire, and for more than 30 years the King of Judea has been a man called Herod.  Some say he's a raving lunatic who executed his wife Mariamne.  A new king would presumably be an improvement.

It occurred to me and my respected colleagues Caspar and Melchior that if we were among the first to pay our respects to the new king now, we might be rewarded later when he actually began to rule.  I had a few golden trinkets that I could present to him, and my friends were able to obtain some fragrant resins.  We decided to make a journey to Judea.  We resolved to set out on the next Winter Solstice, which would be the new king's first birthday.

Meeting King Herod

After a long trek across the desert, we arrived at Jerusalem, the Judean capital.  There we explained to people that we were visitors from the East, and we asked them about their new ruler.  “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?  We saw his star when it appeared.  We come bearing gifts to honor him.”

No one seemed to know what we were talking about.  A star?  A new king?  Although King Herod was now about 70 years old, there was no expectation that he would soon be replaced on the throne.  Moreover, people told us that upon his death his kingdom would be probably be divided among his three sons.

But a few days later, a messenger arrived saying that the king himself wanted to see us!

I went to the palace with my two friends and told Herod about the star.  He wanted to know exactly when it had appeared.

He said he had consulted his own council of astrologers, whom he called priests and teachers of the law.  They told him of a prophecy which predicted that a little town nearby would produce a ruler.  The town was called Bethlehem.  Such an improbable event would recapitulate what had happened a thousand years before, when a local shepherd boy grew up to become King David.

Bethlehem was only about five miles away.  The king asked us to go there and try to locate the child.  “As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and pay him my respects.”

We set out for the town that evening, and to our surprise and joy we saw the star!  At least it looked like the same star, a bright point in the heavens, but this time it was high in the sky.  It could have been a wandering star, a “planet.”  As nearly as we could determine, it seemed to be hovering directly above one particular house in Bethlehem.

Meeting the New King

We knocked on the door, and a man called Joseph answered.  We asked whether he had a one-year-old son, and he did!  His wife Mary brought out the child.  She was quite surprised when we opened our gifts and presented them to the boy.  He turned up his nose at the smell of the myrrh, but he played with the golden trinkets while we told our story.

Joseph and Mary invited us to stay for the night.  They made space for us in the back room.  We tried to sleep, but the beds were uncomfortable.  Besides, we were excited to have met the future king.

I finally dropped off to sleep, but I had a nightmare.  I dreamed that we returned to Herod, told him we had found the child, and gave him the address.  But he had no intention of paying his respects.  No, he wanted to eliminate the supposed rival for his throne.  He sent his soldiers to kill the boy!

In the morning I described my dream to Joseph and the others.  We agreed that it was a warning that the murderous king was not to be trusted.

My friends and I decided that we shouldn't report back to the palace.  Nor should we return home by the same way that we had come.  Instead we traveled north to Damascus, then followed the valley of the Euphrates down to Babylon.  This Fertile Crescent route was almost a thousand miles longer, but it was safer.

"The Rest on the Flight into Egypt" by the Venetian artist Titian


This summer I received a letter from a far country.  It turned out to be written by the boy's father, Joseph.

He too had had a dream about the evil king.  That nightmare prompted him to flee Bethlehem and take his wife Mary and the boy all the way to Egypt.

Joseph yearned to return to Bethlehem someday, but Herod was still on the throne and his son Archelaus was expected to succeed him.

There was an alternative.  Mary's relatives lived near another town called Nazareth, 90 miles to the north.  The couple were considering whether that might be a safer place to raise their son.  They might become Nazarenes.

Meanwhile, Joseph wrote, Herod realized that he had been outwitted.  Since we astrologers had failed to provide him with a report identifying the boy, he furiously gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were under two years old!  Joseph wasn't sure whether this massacre of the innocent children had actually been carried out.  If it was, future historians will surely record the event.


(a retelling of chapter 2 of Matthew)

Click here for other Bible stories I've retold in the first person.


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