Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
Four months after Julius Caesar was assassinated, his great nephew, the emperor Augustus Caesar, staged games to celebrate the military victories of his uncle. According to the Roman writer Suetonius, just as the games were beginning, a bright comet rose and shone for seven successive days. Historically, it may have been the brightest daylight comet ever seen. Romans interpreted the event as a sign that Julius Caesar had become a god. And, his successor, Augustus Caesar, used this sign in the heavens to legitimize his own political power as absolute ruler.
Among the Hebrews, there was also a connection between a sign in the heavens and the rule of the Messiah. The Old Testament book of Numbers records the famous story of Balaam. When the Hebrews were entering the Promised Land, destroying those who stood in their way, the Moabite king Balak became exceedingly fearful. He sent for the pagan prophet Balaam and tried to bribe him to prophesy a curse against the Hebrews. But, instead, Balaam cursed Moab and blessed Israel. He said, “I see him, though not now; I observe him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel, that will crush the brows of Moab” (Num 24:17). In many of the Qumran scrolls, discovered in 1947, this ancient prophecy of Balaam is used to speak of the coming of the Messiah.
The Talmud, which postdates the Christian gospels by at least two centuries, contains a midrash about the birth of Abraham and astrologers. The midrash says that astrologers at the court of King Nimrod of Babylon observed the heavens and predicted the birth of Abraham. Listening to their words, the king perceived the newly born Abraham as a threat to his throne. When the king ordered the child to be brought to him, Terah, Abraham’s father, brought the son of a slave whom the king then killed with his own hands.
In his gospel, Matthew relates the narrative of the Magi who saw a star rise in the East and followed it to the Christ child. In a world familiar with Balaam’s prophecy, Caesar’s deification told by a comet and the midrash about Abraham’s birth, Matthew’s account about a star at the birth of Jesus would not have seemed strange at all. People took it as a matter of fact that signs in the heavens accompanied the birth of world rulers and even predicted their fate.
On the one hand, some scholars today dismiss the possibility that there could actually have been a star that led the Magi to Jesus. They say that Matthew is using the sign in the heavens as do other sources in his day. For him, the star of Bethlehem was simply a way to teach the truth that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah-King. On the other hand, there are scientists who claim evidence for such a star.
In the 17th century, Kepler advanced the theory that, around 7 B.C., there was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn along with a supernova. The result was a brilliant light that lasted for weeks. Since we do not know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, this celestial phenomenon could have been the star of Bethlehem.
Most recently, the Austrian astronomer Konradin Ferrari d’Occhieppo explained the plausibility of Kepler’s theory. According to Ferrari d’Occhieppo, for the Babylonians, Jupiter was the star of their highest deity and Saturn represented the Jewish people. The night Jupiter rose alongside Saturn, it was most brilliant. Astronomers in Babylon would have interpreted this phenomenon as a universally significant event, signaling the birth of a king in the land of the Jews.
There is no want of theories trying to explain the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem. Comets. Supernova. An unusual constellation of various planets. Archaeologists even report evidence from Egyptian and Chinese accounts of some unique star being observed at the time of Jesus’ birth. Thus, on the basis of science, there is no a priori reason to dismiss the star of Bethlehem as mere poetry or symbol. God who created the world never abdicated his rule over all of his creatures. He sets the stars and planets on their course and they obey his laws.
Astrologers could search the heavens and find a way to God because all creation speaks to us of God. The Magi are spiritual descendants of Socrates. They question. They wonder. They use their reason and find the way to come to God. Reason and faith, science and religion, are not enemies. They are servants of the one Truth.
Most certainly, Matthew records the appearance of the star of Bethlehem not to satisfy our scientific curiosity but rather to arouse our faith. His gospel, just like the gospels of Mark, Luke and John, does not fabricate facts. Not at all! But, the gospels use events to teach the truths of our salvation.
God leads Jews and Gentiles along different paths to come to Christ. God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. There is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all” (1Tim 2: 4-6). The simple shepherds hear the voice of the angel and come to Christ, the true Lamb of God. The wise men see the silent star point beyond itself and follow its lead to Wisdom Incarnate.
Shepherds moved by a supernatural revelation and astrologers led by nature herself set off on their way. For the former, it is a short distance; for the latter, a long journey, lasting perhaps two years. Neither shepherds nor wise men find Christ except that they are intent on looking for him. And so it is today. No one comes to Christ without wanting to discover truth.
But, there is an even deeper meaning to Matthew’s narrative of the Magi and the star of Bethlehem. It is the deepest longing of God to bring each of us to salvation. “Since Christ died for all people, and since the ultimate vocation of everyone is in fact one, and divine, … the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to everyone the possibility of being associated with the paschal mystery [of Christ]” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). This is no myth. This is truth at its deepest level. It is the miracle of God’s infinite love!