Matthew 2 “Now, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold Maji from the East arrived in Jerusalem saying, `Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the East and have come to worship him.’”
Matthew’s gospel is very Jewish. And in this Jewish story, no one’s going to expect a non-Jewish star-gazer (possible atheist) to enter the sacred Christmas story as a major character and give a gift to the Jewish Messiah. After all, they’re not Jews. But that’s what happened. The Magi have no vested interest in this baby, the prophecies related to him, or to the religion in which he was born into. And yet, they find themselves in the story. Imagine – an atheist in the Christmas story!
We do not know the number of the Magi, nor their names, nor the size of the party which traveled to Jerusalem. At best, they were wise men from the East, i.e., Persia, Arabia, or Babylonia, who had heard from either Daniel (who was in captivity for a time in their region) or other Hebrew prophets about a King being born to the Jews. Perhaps they had read Numbers 24:17 which states “A star shall come forth from Jacob and a scepter shall rise from Israel…” Or, perhaps, it was their own prophecy that set them up for this fulfillment. We can’t be sure though.
At worst, they were students of science, philosophy, medicine, astrology and world religions, or even atheists, curious about a star. They were pagan astrologers that took their cues from the stars! Their theological content was limited at best. They weren’t practicing Judaism nor were they living in the Holy Land nor were they part of God’s chosen nation. Yet, God supernaturally revealed to these heathen (perhaps, atheistic) people what He was up to in Jesus. A prophecy outside of the Jewish nation, and a Jewish writer without any proprietary reason to write “pagan astrologers” (or atheists) into the Christmas story, argues for the authenticity of the Matthean account.
This whole thing was started by the appearance of a star. The “star of Bethelehem” has been the subject of scholarly discussion ever since the first centuries after the birth of Jesus. Some have suggested that it was a nova or supernova, a white dwarf star that literally explodes and gradually fades out. Some have suggested that it was a moving comet. Some have suggested that it was a triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Some have suggested that it was the same Shekinah Glory (visible presence) of God that was revealed to Moses in the burning bush, to Israel in the desert (Ex.13:21), to Jesus when he was transfigured, and to Saul on the road to Damascus. We cannot know precisely what phenomenon took place.
But we can safely say that the Magi were men who had an interest in astronomy and expressed what they observed in terms that were consistent with the scientific development of their time. They exhibited a great faith in the evidence they did have that resulted in a worship experience that changed their lives. Is it within the realm of possibility, that they moved from atheism to theism after their long, arduous journey and after seeing the Christ-child? I think it is.
In the context of Matthew’s Messianic Gospel, this part of the birth narrative hints at the eventual spread of the Gospel beyond the nation of Israel to include all people of the world. Men and women in every age, whether premessianic or postmessianic or even atheistic, have been able to fling themselves on to God’s mercies, regardless of the level of their theological content, and there find grace and peace and salvation. Even an atheist has a place in the manger this Christmas.
Atheist, you don’t have to go through a world religion to encounter the Christ-child. No specific religion brokers to you God’s love and favor. No one group has a monopoly on God’s grace. No oppressive, religous establishment can dictate to you this Christmas. Why? You are invited to go straight to the Christ-child. Atheists are welcome in his birth narrative.