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Steering by the Stars

Steering by the Stars

Tuesday January 7

Alasdair Ross, a former officer in the Merchant Navy, used to navigating by the stars, offers his perspective on the star that led the Magi to Jesus' birthplace.


The reading from St Matthew’s Gospel chapter 2 is about the Wise Men following a bright star, and has significant meaning for many.

As First Mate in the Merchant Navy standing the 4-8 watch on the bridge, it was one of my duties to take star sights by means of a sextant, such that the position of the ship could be ascertained.

During the ten years in this job I got to know every bright star in the heavens, but in all that time I never did identify the Star of Bethlehem, the star that guided the Magi to the birthplace of the baby Jesus.

Various religious sects have made educated guesses regarding the identity of the Star of Bethlehem. Whatever the thinking, it is a fact that the Magi navigated their way a long distance by means of this bright star just like I navigated my ship from port to port sighting similar stars. But unlike myself, the Wise Men did not have a sextant. So, I’ve always wondered, how did they do it?

I am one of the merry band of storytellers from the congregation of Kinning Park Church in Glasgow, who go along to the local Primary School and spend an hour or so with the children who come along to the church each year and produce an amazing nativity play. My storytelling theme has been stories about stars, and in one such talk I brought my sextant along and, in wee tot speak, showed them how it worked, this being the principle of reflection by way of mirrors. To this I added the bible story of the wise men being guided by a star to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.

Then I asked the class, ‘as the wise men didn’t have a sextant, how did they know they had arrived at their destination?’ To this question I expected the raising of many hands with the reply ‘they turned on Google maps, stupid’, but in fact there were no takers. All seemed confused.

So, I told them of a theory.  We are told in the Bible that the Wise Men travelled by caravan consisting of many camels, which would have been led by a camel puller or leader. On arriving at a small village near Jerusalem they would have required to replenish their water vessels after several weeks travelling in the desert. Bethlehem of course had no running water at that time, only a central well where people could draw water for cooking and washing.

On arriving at the well, the camel puller at once saw the Star of Bethlehem which, at the time was high in the sky, reflected by the surface of the water in the well, just like the reflection principle of my sextant. He then informed the wise men of his observation and they were all overjoyed at seeing the image of the star reflected in the well, as they knew this was the sign that they had reached the place where the baby Jesus was born.

The children obviously enjoyed listening to the story as they asked me back for another time.

Certainly, a biblical story of “all’s well that ends well”.