One of the central elements in the Epiphany story is the star. There are numerous theories as to what exactly it was. It may not have been a star at all, but Jupiter or Saturn, which are said to have come quite close to Earth around the year 6 B.C. I thought of that the other day because Jupiter is currently bright in the southeastern sky a couple of hours before sunrise along the East Coast of the U.S. With high-powered binoculars one can even see some of its many moons.
Most of us city dwellers have no idea what we’re missing when it comes to the night sky. Up until about a hundred years ago the night sky was illuminated with thousands of points of light, a breathtaking display many moderns have rarely if ever experienced.
My first and only real glimpse of the magnificent Milky Way was about 20 years ago. I was visiting a priest friend in rural North Dakota in mid-January, and the sky was cloudless, the temperature just below zero, and the humidity very low (thus, no haze). We decided to go for a nighttime walk away from the town. After we’d gone about half a mile I happened to look up; I couldn’t believe my eyes!
“What is that?” I asked my friend. “Are those clouds coming in?” “What do you mean?There are no clouds,” he replied. “Then what is all that?” I asked, pointing upward. He smiled and answered, “They’re stars; that’s the Milky Way.”
I was astounded by the sight, but at the same time I felt a bit angry that I’d been deprived of such a view all my life. Is this what the ancients saw every night? This must be what inspired the psalmist to write, The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament shows forth the work of His hand … night unto night takes up the message (Ps 19:1ff). This must be what God meant when he told Abraham, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5).
Frankly, from where I live in Washington, D.C., I can count the stars, but the true night sky displays an astonishing number of stars. “The Spacious Firmament on High,” an old hymn by Joseph Addison, has these lyrics:
The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great Original proclaim. …
Soon as the evening shades prevail,
The moon takes up the wondrous tale, …
While all the stars that round her burn,
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.
What though in solemn silence all
Move round our dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
Amid the radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”
If there is ever a widespread power outage on the East Coast, I pray it will happen on a cloudless, dry night. If it does, I will bid my neighbors to join me outside and behold the gift above.
We may think we know what the Magi saw as they beheld the star, but I doubt most of us have any idea at all. The sky that the ancients saw every night, the sky that is visible to those in rural areas even today, is more glorious than many of us can imagine: the stars in unbelievable numbers forever singing as they shine, “The hand that made us is divine.”
Here’s a video I put together some years ago featuring photographs of the night sky interspersed with more fanciful images:
The second half of this next video shows some wonderful high-definition pictures of the stars in the night sky. If your monitor is a good one, you might want to maximize the view—it displays nicely even on large screens.
The video below is a 2008 Coca-Cola commercial that takes up the theme of the star of Christmas.
Let us review the impact that the star of Christmas had on the wise men, the Magi.
The star moved them to seek meaning outside themselves; it made them look out and up.
The star called them beyond what was familiar in their own country and world and expanded their horizons toward Christ and His Kingdom.
The star summoned them to seek Christ, and when they found Him, to worship Him.
The star drew them to be generous to a poor family in Bethlehem; they made sacrifices as they lay costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh before the Lord.
The star roused them to conversion; they “returned to their country by another route,” following the straight and narrow path rather than the wide and destructive one.
Yes, no one encounters Jesus Christ and goes away unchanged. A blind man went away able to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk. The hungry went away satisfied, the ignorant instructed, the guilty forgiven, sinners converted.
The call of the nations to change and to new life began with a star. The light of the star opens the way to the Light of World, Jesus. The star of my life is Jesus.
In the commercial below we see Santa (a name that means “Holy One”) sending forth a star, one that touches people and radiates a light that transforms them.
A woman sees the light of that star and is able to forgive her husband and be reconciled with him.
A young soccer player sees the light of that star, surrenders his pride, and steps aside to let another share in and get a shot at glory.
A young girl sees the light of that star and, giving up some of her own beauty, seeks to beautify a public park for others.
A museum guard sees the light of that star and shows mercy to the guard dog with him (this was a silly one).
A father sees the light of that star and allows his son a moment of growth.
Yes, there is something about that star that changes everyone who looks at it. They become more forgiving, more gracious, more aware of others, more connected to others, more loving. The light of the star, and the light of the world, is Jesus. His light is meant to have that same effect—and more besides.
In the background of the commercial an old Elvis song plays: “Wise men say only fools rush in, but I can’t help falling in love with you. Shall I stay? Would it be a sin if I can’t help falling in love with you?”
Of course the love that is symbolized by the star is not the romantic love of the song but the brotherly and agape love that Christ gives. Like the Magi who found Christ by the star, no one sees the star of Jesus and encounters Him and then goes away unchanged. Indeed, if we authentically encounter Christ, we are equipped to love, just as the people in this commercial are. We are equipped to forgive, to bring healing, to help others find strength and glory in the truth, and to come to full maturity in Christ. A person who knows Jesus and has encountered Him cannot help loving others, not in some merely sentimental way, but with a strong and vigorous love rooted in the truth. This is the same love that Jesus has for us all.
At the end of the commercial is an exhortation in Spanish that translates as follows: “Give the world the best of you.” The best of me is Jesus.
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.
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.