The Epiphany of the Lord, Matthew 2:1-12
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star.
Having discussed the chronology of the infancy narratives as well as the particular question regarding the time in which the star appeared to the Magi (and, therefore, the length of their travel to Bethlehem), we now turn to the nature of the star itself. As we read the biblical account, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary star. It went before the Magi to guide them, it stopped over the place where Christ lay – something about this star allowed the Magi to recognize that it marked the birth of the Messiah.
Indeed, we are led to ponder, Was this a real star at all? While the Bible does clearly call it a “star,” must we believe that it was in fact a real star? Could it have been an angel? Or the Holy Spirit himself? Or maybe it was a meteor? Or a comet? Or was it a vision which only the Magi saw?
When we come to such a difficult scriptural question, we must turn to the experts. I do not mean that we should look to modern scientists and biblical scholars, but we must turn to the true experts – the Fathers of the Church, the Church’s venerable Doctors, and the great theologians who have interpreted the text according to the Church’s Tradition. In attempting to give something of an answer to our question, I will rely particularly on St. Thomas Aquinas and Cornelius a’ Lapide – these two theologians synthesize the varying opinions of the Church Fathers, while also taking account of the astronomical discoveries of science.
How did the Magi understand the message of the star?
It is quite interesting to note that none (or very few) other than the Magi were able to interpret the true meaning of the star. It seems that at least some other must have noticed the star, yet only the Magi understood that this indicated the birth of the Messiah. What is particularly surprising is that the Magi were not even Jewish, and yet they recognized that the star indicated the birth of the King of the Jews!
The Church Fathers – Sts. Basil, Jerome, Leo, and Cyprian, as well as Origen, Eusebeus and others – piously believed that the Magi knew Christ was born by the token of a star on account of the prophesy of Balaam. In Numbers 24:17, Balaam said that “a star shall rise out of Jacob.” Balaam was a pagan, from a land to the east of Israel. It seems likely that the Magi were of the same nationality of Balaam and, therefore, recalled his prophecy with particular devotion. Since this pagan nation had only one prophetic message about the Messiah, it is no surprise that the Magi would have recalled it immediately upon seeing the star. The Jews, on the other hand, had received many prophesies about the Christ, hence they did not recall this one about the star until later.
Moreover, we must maintain that the Magi recognized the true meaning of the star not merely from Balaam’s prophecy, but also from an internal movement of the Holy Spirit. They knew by a divine instinct and revelation, for the Magi were endowed with a hidden celestial afflatus. This is the opinion of St. Augustine and other Fathers – it is also the opinion of St. Thomas and of Cornelius a’ Lapide.
Finally, upon entering the house where the Child lay and, what is more, upon beholding the Infant, the Magi were illuminated by a heavenly light so as to perceive that this Babe was not a mere man, but true God. Hence, St. Jerome states, “The splendor and the majesty of the hidden Divinity, which shone even in his human face, were able at the first glance to attract those who beheld him.”
Was it really a star?
Some hold that the star was, in fact, the Holy Spirit himself; but others believe it to be an angel – so Origen, Theophylact, St. John Chrysostom, and Maldonatus. Others hold that it was a real and new star, created simply for this one purpose – so St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. Moreover, others hold that the star was a comet – this seems to be the revelation given to Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich.
We, however, will maintain (with Cornelius a’ Lapide) that this star was not a star at all, but something of an entirely different nature. Neither was it a true comet, nor a pure angel, nor less the Holy Spirit – we will show this from the nature of the star itself.
The nature of the star
The star was entirely different from other stars and also from comets.
1) It was produced upon the very night of Christ’s Nativity and vanished after the Magi arrived in Bethlehem (so St. Augustine).
2) It was not as the other stars are, far above and away from the earth, but it came down low near the earth, so as to indicate the very house where the Child lay. Hence, it is clear that it was not a true star (a burning ball of gas, billions of miles away).
3) It did not move in the pattern of the other stars, but guided the Magi and went before them. Moreover, neither did this star move according to the pattern of comets – for this star proceeded according to the speed of the Magi.
4) This star shown both day and night, but at other times vanished (when the Magi went to Jerusalem to ask where they should go next) and then re-appeared (when the Magi went from Jerusalem to Bethlehem). The other stars shine only at night and do not appear and vanish and re-appear.
5) Moreover, the peculiar nature of this star is witnessed by its brightness (which far exceeded the other stars) and its size (for though it was smaller than the others, it seemed larger since it was so close to the earth).
The Scriptural account witnesses to these peculiarities: For the star goes before the Magi as if guiding them (hence it does not follow the pattern of the other stars), it stands out from among the others to be recognized by the Magi (by its splendor and size), and it indicates not merely the city but even the very house where Christ lay (hence, it came down low to the earth and rested directly over the place).
Moreover, in addition to the Scriptural account, we have the witness of the Tradition which is very nicely summarized in several Christmas carols.
From We three Kings: “Oh, star of wonder, star of might / Star with royal beauty bright / Westward leading, still proceeding / Guide us to they perfect light.”
And from The First Noel: “They looked up and saw a star / Shining in the East, beyond them far / And to the earth it gave great light / And so it continued both day and night […] And by the light of that same star / Three wise men came from country far / To seek for a King was their intent / And to follow the star wherever it went […] This star drew nigh to the northwest / O’er Bethlehem it took its rest / And there it did both pause and stay / Right o’er the place where Jesus lay.”
The star of Bethlehem, not a star at all
From all this, it is clear that this “star” could not have been a real star. The simple fact that it indicated so directly the place where Christ lay tells us that it could not have been a real star – for no star could indicate so specific an area by shining from billions of miles away, yet if any star were to draw close to earth and indicate the place directly it would surely destroy the whole planet (since stars are far larger than earth and are very hot). No, this was not an ordinary star!
Therefore, it seems that the many books and websites which attempt to plot out the star of Bethlehem according to astronomic charts are misguided. This “star” appeared just long enough to indicate the Child, then it disappeared all together. It left no record, other than that which is preserved in Scripture and Tradition. As it was not an astronomic reality, it would have left no data for later astronomers to discover.
Then what was the star of Bethlehem?
The closest parallel we have to the star of Bethlehem is the pillar of fire and cloud which led the people forth from Egypt – so St. Thomas and Cornelius a’ Lapide. Just as the pillar of fire and cloud led the Israelites, so too the star went before the Magi. Just as the pillar changed its form and appearance, so too the star was sometimes visible and sometimes hidden. Indeed, the pillar was a foreshadowing of the star – so St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, Fulgentius, and others.
Therefore, by analogy to the pillar of fire and cloud, I maintain (with Lapide) that the star was formed of condensed air and dust, with brightness infused into it by the angelic powers. It appeared like a star, but was in truth a newly formed mass which was moved by the angels as a guide for the Magi.
As Almighty God had liberated his people Israel from slavery in Egypt through the pillar of fire and cloud, he has now liberated the gentiles from slaver to sin by the guidance of this star.