Reflections on As With Gladness Men of Old, verse 1
As with gladness men of old
did the guiding star behold,
as with joy they hailed its light,
leading onward, beaming bright,
so, most gracious Lord, may we
evermore be led by thee.
This is one of the few Christmas carols that speak primarily about the wise men. The story of the wise men in recorded in Matthew 2. These “men of old” are described in the Bible as Magi, which is a special class of priests which arose in the Persian empire. They had a special interest in astrology, among other things. It was the religion of academia.
Astronomy is a science that was derived from the religion of astrology. Scientifically, The Magi were experts in charting the courses of stars and planets and were able to predict their movements with great accuracy. What made it a religion was that they considered the stars, planets, and constellations to be alive, powerful entities with the ability to influence and even control earthly events. In the book of Daniel, the prophet is a leader of the Magi and this is the time period when that group started. Because of the Jewish exile, they knew of the Jewish anticipation of a coming Messiah.
Something in the night sky alerted the Magi of a special birth in Judea and prompted them to start their long journey to greet the new King. One possibility is that they saw Jupiter, which they considered the king of the planets, in conjunction with Saturn, which to them represented Palestine, inside the constellation of the fishes, which to them indicated the last times. This celestial event happened in 7 B.C., which lines up well with the biblical chronology.Another possibility is that a year later, Jupiter was inside the constellation Ares, which they associated with Israel. Whether or not either of these events inspired the Magi or something else did, we cannot know. What we can tell from the Bible, is that the star that led them to Jesus was a special star, created by God for this purpose because it moved. The original star caused them to travel west toward Jerusalem, where they expected to find the new King. When they left the Jerusalem, the star went ahead of them to Bethlehem, which would be south (Matthew 2:9-10). The Magi were overjoyed when they saw this star – it moved, directing them to Jesus, and it stopped when they found Him.
One beautiful aspect of this carol is that every verse ends with a prayer. This first verse is a prayer that we, like the Magi, would be led to Jesus.