However, whether or not it was a real star, such as the North Star (Polaris), the importance of a great light appearing is more key to the story, and may have been Matthew’s real plan. He is the evangelist whose intent is to show how Jesus fulfills all of the biblical prophecies. And there are many divine lights mentioned in the Bible that serve to remind us of God’s divine work and point to the fulfillment of salvation that comes through Christ. Many of these references are used at key times in our liturgical celebrations:
- “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss… Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness.” (Gn 1:1-4) This is always read at the Easter Vigil.
- “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays” (Mal 3:20). This is part of Advent’s “O Antiphons,” used in the last week before Christmas. The “sun of justice” is, in Latin, O Oriens — often translated as “O Day-spring.” We hear this in the Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
- “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God … the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:1-5). This is part of the Gospel reading for Christmas Day.
- “My own eyes have seen the salvation which you prepared in the sight of every people, a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” (Lk 2:28-32). These are the words of Simeon read at the Presentation of the Lord at the Temple (Feb. 2, also known as Candlemas Day).
- Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you” (Is 60:1). This is from the first reading for Epiphany, Jan. 2 this year.
There are many more, but these examples are used to reveal how Jesus is the one who brings the Light of Heaven and the glory of God.
The Star of Bethlehem is part of the Christmas story, but it really comes to us from the Epiphany story (and the readings we will hear Jan. 2). Most of us probably think of the Epiphany story as the Wise Men following the star to bring gifts to the infant Jesus. However, for the church, the Epiphany celebration includes far more.
Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means “manifestation.” Among the Eastern churches, the feast is also called theophaneia, meaning “the appearing of God.” The complete Epiphany story includes the wedding at Cana and the Baptism of the Lord.
Including these in the entire picture — with other readings like those above — can help us begin to see something more important in this story of the star. It’s not about the appearance of a celestial star so much as about the appearance of the presence and glory of God, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Most specifically, the star story helps us celebrate the manifestation of Christ’s glory and divinity.
The Star of Bethlehem could very well have been a supernova or a comet. But it isn’t so much about something seen in the sky as it is about something that was seen on earth. Or rather, someone who was seen on earth — and who will be seen here again. And he is the real “star” of Bethlehem: Jesus.
Sources: www.adlerplanetarium.org; Dictionary of Catholic Devotions; Judaism 101 at ww.jewfaq.org; The Catholic Encyclopedia; the Modern Catholic Dictionary