They are a staple of many a Christmas tree. Bright — admittedly sometimes garish — stars adorning the tops of the trees. There they sit, bright reminders of an event more than 2,000 years ago and yet still at the center of history.
The Star of Bethlehem is well-known and beloved. But we also still ask what it was? What was the Star of Bethlehem?
It is a question that is remarkably relevant to today, and in this issue Dr. Peter Brown takes a lovely look at what history, science and theology have to say (see Pages 22-24).
He builds on the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI who taught us something important about the star. “What kind of star was the star the Magi saw and followed?” he asked in 2011. “This question has been the subject of discussion among astronomers down the centuries. Kepler, for example, claimed that it was ‘new’ or ‘super-new,’ one of those stars that usually radiates a weak light but can suddenly and violently explode, producing an exceptionally bright blaze.”
But Pope Benedict always went to the heart of the matter. The Wise Men, he told us, “knew that it is not with any kind of telescope but rather with the profound eyes of reason in search of the ultimate meaning of reality and with the desire for God, motivated by faith, that it is possible to meet him, indeed, becomes possible for God to come close to us.”
And in coming close to God, we encounter mystery. Pope Francis, speaking on the star and the Epiphany in early 2015, noted again that the star led the Wise Men to a manifestation of God’s power not in splendor but in humility and goodness. “The crib,” Francis said, “points us to a different path from the one cherished by the thinking of this world: it is the path of God’s self-abasement, that humility of God’s love by which he abases himself, he completely lowers himself, his glory concealed in the manger of Bethlehem, on the cross upon Calvary, in each of our suffering brothers and sisters.”
The Pope added that when we face our own troubles and challenges and are feeling weighed down by the agonies of the world, we should ask, “Where is the star?” It is easy to lose sight of it amid what he calls the deceptions of this world. The star is our guide, however, the path of liberation “from our illusions, our presumptions.”
The star is always there for us if we have the presence of mind and heart to look up into the heavens and remember, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!”
A blessed Advent!
Matthew Bunson, D.Min., K.H.S., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 40 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.