As we continue our survey of teachings on the birth of our Lord from St. Thomas Aquinas, today we consider the mysterious star that led the Magi to Christ. In recent decades there has been a strong tendency to seek a natural explanation for this phenomenon. Some speculate that it was in fact a comet or the appearance of several planets close together in the night sky. While not necessarily incorrect, these explanations are largely set aside by St. Thomas and most of the Church Fathers on whom he relies (especially St. John Chrysostom). They observe that while the manifestation is called a star, it has qualities that stars do not possess.
Before beginning, however, I would like to state that while I agree with the conclusion of St. Thomas and most of the Church Fathers, the first two of the five points they make (see below) are puzzling to me; they seem unnecessary, if not erroneous. I mean no disrespect to men far greater and holier than I, but I cannot, in my limited sensibility, see how they are accurate observations. Therefore, I will simply share my befuddlement in the commentary.
That said, the three points that follow are clear enough and make a good case that the term “star” was used by St Matthew in a generic rather than scientific sense. It was a star-like object, but one with qualities not possessed by normal stars. The full truth about this star is mysterious. Also mysterious is whether others were able to see the star. I personally think not and would see that as further evidence that the star was not merely a natural occurrence. Rather, certain people were able to see the star and others were not.
Onward, then, to St. Thomas’s teaching on the star that led the Magi to Jesus. The question that forms the basis of today’s post is taken from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. St. Thomas’s answers are presented in italics, while my inferior commentary appears in plain, red text.
Whether the star which appeared to the Magi belonged to the heavenly system? (Summa Theologiae, Part Three, Question 36, Article 7).
As Chrysostom says (Hom. vi in Matth.), it is clear, for many reasons, that the star which appeared to the Magi did not belong to the heavenly system. First, because no other star approaches from the same quarter as this star, whose course was from north to south, these being the relative positions of Persia, whence the Magi came, and Judea.
It is not clear to me why this should be so. At its height, Persia had regions to the south (into modern-day Egypt) and even west toward Greece; but it extended even more to the east from Judea and all the more so at the time of Christ’s birth. It seems possible—even likely—that the Magi would have come from the east rather then the south, and that the trajectory of the star would then have followed the usual course of moving from east to west.
Indeed, the Greek text says rather plainly that the magi arrived ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν (from the east). It is not clear to me why Chrysostom (Thomas simply quoted him) presumed that the Magi came up from the south. While it is certainly possible, it is not necessarily so, and if anything seems contraindicated.
Secondly, from the time [at which it was seen]. For it appeared not only at night, but also at midday: and no star can do this, not even the moon.
Here, too, I am somewhat confused. The biblical text does not seem to say clearly that the star also appeared during the day. Perhaps St. John Chrysostom presumed that the Magi could not reasonably have traveled at night and thus needed to be able to see the star by day. Without the bright light of the moon, nighttime travel was certainly difficult if not impossible. Further, the comings and goings of the Magi (visiting Herod and going into the house where Jesus and Mary were) are not things that would typically have been done in the dark of night, but rather during the day. Still, the presumption that the star appeared during the day is not proven.
Thirdly, because it was visible at one time and hidden at another. For when they entered Jerusalem it hid itself: then, when they had left Herod, it showed itself again.
This is a detail that escapes many readers: Namely, that upon the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem, the star either became invisible or at least gave out ambiguous clues as to its location. This is not the nature of normal stars, which are stably present and visible on a clear night. The star had led the Magi this far with clarity and accuracy and yet suddenly was strangely gone from view, requiring them to ask for directions.
St. John Chrysostom saw in this a pastoral purpose of rousing the Jewish people to faith. He spoke of the star now halting and now rousing up the camp of the Jews, when it was needful (Homily 6 on Matthew). Sadly, the Jewish leaders and scholars whom Herod consulted seemed rather disinterested, despite prophecies being fulfilled before their very eyes: Kings from the East following a star and bearing gifts (see Psalm 72:10, Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 60:6).
The point here is that ordinary stars do not appear and disappear.
Fourthly, because its movement was not continuous, but when the Magi had to continue their journey the star moved on; when they had to stop the star stood still; as happened to the pillar of a cloud in the desert.
The text describes unusual movements that normal stars do not make: the star they had seen … went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.
Fifthly, because it indicated the virginal Birth, not by remaining aloft, but by coming down below. For it is written (Matthew 2:9) that “the star which they had seen in the east went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was.” … But it could not have indicated the house distinctly, unless it were near the earth. And, as he [Chrysostom] observes, this does not seem fitting to a star, but “of some power endowed with reason.”
The need for the star to be lower in the sky than any normal star is explained well here. Even the moon, a relatively closer object, is still too high in the sky to indicate a specific place. If I were to go out and look at the moon, I might perceive it as being directly over my house, but it would also appear to be directly over thousands of other houses for hundreds of miles around. In order to indicate a specific house in Bethlehem, the star must somehow have been lower in the sky or must have pointed to the house with some sort of light ray.
Consequently “it seems that this was some invisible force made visible under the form of a star.”
It seems reasonable to conclude that the star that led the Magi was not a natural star in the usual sense. Rather, the star here had some of the properties of a natural star, yet was something different, and was controlled by a power endowed with reason and a purpose to lead certain men to Christ.
St. Thomas goes on to cite a few other teachings from the Fathers and then includes his own opinion:
Wherefore some say that, as the Holy Ghost, after our Lord’s Baptism, came down on Him under the form of a dove, so did He appear to the Magi under the form of a star. While others say that the angel who, under a human form, appeared to the shepherds, under the form of a star, appeared to the Magi. But it seems more probable that it was a newly created star, not in the heavens, but in the air near the earth, and that its movement varied according to God’s will. Wherefore Pope Leo says in a sermon on the Epiphany (xxxi): “A star of unusual brightness appeared to the three Magi in the east, which, through being more brilliant and more beautiful than the other stars, drew men’s gaze and attention: so that they understood at once that such an unwonted event could not be devoid of purpose.”
Thus we can reasonably conclude that the star was not merely a natural occurrence. While there is no official Church interpretation to which we must adhere, St. Thomas and the ancient Fathers saw the star as a mysterious and miraculous work of God, not simply as a natural phenomenon that He permitted and then used to indicate the whereabouts of Christ.
Tomorrow we will continue this thread and ponder more about the Magi themselves.