January 6th, Feast of the Epiphany
[The wise men] having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. (Matthew 2:9-10)
It is generally considered a more conservative and traditional position to believe that the star of Bethlehem was a real and historical star. Indeed, even many Catholics are excited about recent so-called “scientific” data which seeks to determine which star or astronomical event was the historical star of Bethlehem.
Thus, we might be surprised to realize that the overwhelming consensus of the Catholic tradition – from the Church Fathers, through the Scholastic Doctors (including St. Thomas Aquinas), and up to the great theologians of the counter-reformation period – maintains that the star of Bethlehem was not a real star. It was not an event in the heavens at all; that is, it was not in outer-space, but was another sort of reality. Indeed, the star of Bethlehem was a light brightly shining but low to the earth and within our atmosphere. It was no star, nor even a comet or any such thing – rather, it was much more like the pillar of fire which led the Israelites out of Egypt.
The Biblical Evidence
The star of Bethlehem is mentioned only in the first ten verses of the second chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew:
 When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.  Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him. […]  Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them;  And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come to adore him.  Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was.  And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
From the Gospel account, we notice several points about the star:
1) It came to be in connection with the birth of Christ. Whether this was on the very night he was born (as St. Thomas Aquinas believes) or perhaps as many as two years before his birth (according to Sts. Augustine and Chrysostom), the star most certainly came into existence in connection with the Nativity of our Lord. [this is why King Herod inquires the time of the appearance of the star – so as to determine the time of the birth of the Christ Child]
2) It was not as other stars, far above and away from the earth. Rather, it came down low near the earth and indicated the very house where the Child lay – hence we read (in verse 11), And entering into the house etc.
3) It did not move according to the pattern of the other stars, but guided the Magi and went before them.
4) This star shown both in the day and in the night, but at other times immediately vanished (as in when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem and so had to seek the guidance of the scribes there). The star also re-appeared all of a sudden and gave the wise men exceeding joy.
5) Finally, this star was exceedingly bright and much larger than any other stars – and, in this manner, it attracted the attention of the wise men and was able to show the way for them to Bethlehem.
The witness of the Church Fathers
To my knowledge, there is not a single Father of the Church who believes the star of Bethlehem to be a true and real star of the heavens. Even those who say that it is a “star” specify that it was not like the other stars, but was a “new star” created by the Christ Child to guide the wise men to him. Most certainly, the Church Fathers are unanimous in teaching that it was not one of the ordinary stars of the universe which could be mapped out by astronomers.
Here are some of the interpretations relative to the star given by the Fathers of the Church [quotes taken from the Catena Aurea]:
St. Augustine says that it is a “new star” and that it was “not of the number of those stars, which from the beginning of time observe their paths of motion according to the law of their Maker; but a star that first appeared at the birth”. And again, the same Doctor of Grace says, “It was first created at His birth.”
St. Leo the Great speaks of the “rise of a new star.”
St. Remegius puts forward the opinion of those who say that the star was no star at all but “the Holy Spirit: He who descended on the baptized Lord as a dove, appearing to the Magi as a star.” On the other hand, he also says it is possible that the star “was an Angel, the same who appeared to the shepherds.”
The ancient Gloss (glossa ordinaria) states that the star is called “His star” (i.e. the Child’s star) because it is “the star He created for a witness of Himself.” Again, it is put forward as the opinion of St. Fulgentius that the star was created when the Child was born and then disappeared after the wise men worship the Christ. Further, the Gloss also specifies that the star could not have been in the “heavens” (i.e. far above the earth in outer-space), but “must have been in the air” (i.e. within our atmosphere and not too far up, about the same height as the clouds) “and close above the house where the Child was, else it would not have pointed out the exact house.”
Finally, St. John Chrysostom is most explicit in maintaining that the star of Bethlehem was not what we would call a star when he writes: “This was manifestly not one of the common stars of Heaven. First, because none of the stars moves in this way, from east to south, and such is the situation of Palestine with respect to Persia. Secondly, from the time of its appearance, not in the night only, but during the day. Thirdly, from its being visible and then again invisible; when they entered Jerusalem it hid itself and then appeared again when they left Herod. Further, it had no stated motion, but when the Magi were to go on, it went before them; when to stop, it stopped like the pillar of cloud in the desert. Fourthly, it signified the Virgin's delivery, not by being fixed aloft, but by descending to earth, showing herein like an invisible virtue formed into the visible appearance of a star.”
St. Thomas Aquinas said that it wasn’t a real star
In Summa Theologica III, q.36, a.7, St. Thomas Aquinas asks whether the star which appeared to the Magi belonged to the heavenly system, and he replies “no”.
The Angelic Doctor relies heavily upon the patristic witness of Sts. Augustine, Chrysostom, and Leo (all cited above). He claims that “it is clear, for many reasons, that the star which appeared to the Magi did not belong to the heavenly system.” And he concludes that “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.”
St. Thomas, like St. Augustine and others, does not really believe that the star was a newly created “star” (as in a burning ball of gas, billions of miles away in outer-space), but rather affirms that it was a newly created reality which was very close to the earth and certainly no higher than the clouds.
This “star of Bethlehem” is most certainly not something which modern-day astronomers could detect or discover – it was not even an astronomical reality! Rather, it was very close to the earth.
What then was this thing which is called the “star of Bethlehem”?
An explanation from Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide
The greatest Catholic biblical scholar since St. Thomas Aquinas, the Jesuit Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide, offers the best explanation of the star of Bethlehem.
He tells us that it was a newly created reality, a condensed mass of dust and air which was illuminated and moved about by angels. It appeared to the Magi to be something like a star, but particularly large and bright – hence, it amazed them and brought them great joy.
This “star” was not far above the earth and existed only for the thirteen days from Christ’s birth to the coming of the Magi. It left no historically or scientifically detectible traces, other than those preserved in the Scriptures and in Tradition.
Does this make the “star” to be less real or less important? Not at all! There is a long tradition of recognizing a connection between the star of Bethlehem and the pillar of fire. The star was much like the pillar which led for the Israelites, excepting that it was higher in the air (but not too far away). Just as the pillar of fire led the Jews from slavery into freedom, so too did the star of Bethlehem lead these gentiles from slavery to sin and ignorance into the freedom of Christ.
The error of those who seek to discover the “Bethlehem Star”
It has become popular (and “traditional”) to try to determine which star or which astronomical event in the universe was the historical star of Bethlehem. This study is terribly misguided and exposes the faith to ridicule. Further, this study is far removed from the Catholic tradition.
Here we see an example of well-meaning Catholics over-reacting to the modernist and rationalist tendencies of some historical-critical “scholars”. But this over-reaction itself does great damage to the faith, since we look like fools if we try to say that the Bethlehem star was a real star – in such a study, we dismiss our tradition, St. Augustine, St. Leo, St. Gregory, St. Thomas, and all the rest.
Further, those who claim that the star of Bethlehem was an astronomical reality in outer-space end up rendering the Gospel account unintelligible: How could a star out in the universe indicate the very house in which the Christ Child lay? How could such a star or other astronomic reality (be it a comet or supernova or otherwise) come to rest over the very place in which Jesus and Mary rested?
Finally, if the star was in outer-space, why was it noticed only by the wise men and not by others? Indeed, the reason why only the wise men (and perhaps a few others) saw the star was because it wasn’t far above the earth but only up in the clouds and so was only visible to those in the immediate vicinity of the Magi.
If we are going to read the Bible as Catholics (that is, if we are going to read the Bible authentically), then we must look at how the Church Fathers and Doctors have interpreted the texts, rather than running off after the latest fad.