A star, a star … What kind of star?

star of bethlehemHere is one more brief look back into the wave of Christmas and pre-Christmas stories, even as we move into the heart of the actual season of Christmas.

Every few years, there is some fresh wave of speculation about the cause of the mysterious star that, according to tradition and scripture, guided the Magi to Bethlehem. There will be a new book or a television special or something that sets off the coverage and scribes, eager for news hooks during an annual season of writing, grab on.

This is fine with me, because this is an interesting topic, with lots of possibilities to discuss.

For a quick guide to what is going on, check out the report by the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program on PBS. It ends with a summary statement by essayist Frederica Mathewes-Green, who I must confess is both my good friend and the wife of the priest in our parish south of Baltimore. Frederica’s point is simple — this is a mysterious act of God. That’s the heart of the whole matter and points to the heart of the Incarnation:

I would really hate for the focus on uncovering what this was historically or scientifically or astronomically to eclipse the fact that this is a star of wonder. The star that’s at the center of that part of the story is such an object of wonder because we don’t understand what it is. …

I think that’s one of the things that the star speaks to us, that in its brilliance, its luminosity, its elevated qualities, but yet participating in this very same universe that we’re in, that it shows us the depths of the story and, just as it led the Wise Men, it leads us as well deeper and deeper into the mystery.

However, there are people — I confess that I am one — who still like to read reports about the speculation. Thus, let me point you toward the recent “Myth or Miracle?” story by Frank D. Roylance in the Baltimore Sun.

The bottom line: This is an ancient subject, with new hooks due to technology:

Modern technology and scholarship have opened many new windows on the event — and a bibliography on the topic runs into the hundreds of titles. … Was it a comet? A supernova? A spectacular convergence of bright planets? Can we run our celestial computers backward and rediscover it? Or was it a myth or a miracle, inaccessible to science?

This report runs you through most of the options mentioned in that paragraph, including the “pure myth” option. I won’t repeat all of the details.

However, I will note that one option is missing in this list of theories and interpretations.

On one level, the key point of doctrine is that the star carries a message from God. There are people who read the text and, when asked to explain the star’s strange behavior, they offer a simple explanation. This is not a strange star, but a normal — if one can use that word in this context — messenger from God. The star is, in other words, an angel.

A star that is more than a star? This image shows up from time to time in Christian literature. For one example, look up the story of Coriakin in the Narnia tale “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” by C.S. Lewis. I hesitate to mention, in the age of Potter warfare, that Coriakin is, in this story, called a “wizard” as well as a “star at rest.”

Did anyone else see any interesting mainstream news reports on the “Bethlehem star” beat this year?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Terry — this is cheating, but it came up on the TitusOneNine blog and i can’t find any sourcing — the story of the Man and the Birds on Christmas Eve, while his family went off to church. I’m sure George Plagenz wrote it for his old Citizen-Journal religion column, and i know he re-ran it year after year. Otherwise the story is always used as “Anonymous” or “Attribution Unknown.”

    Gotta lead on this one, chief?

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Terry, i know this is cheating, but the question came up on TitusOneNine — the well-known “The Man and the Birds” story of a rainy Christmas Eve while the rest of the family was at church: George Plagenz, the longtime Columbus Citizen-Journal religion columnist wrote it, didn’t he? I know he ran it at Christmas time for years, and now i see it everywhere as “Attribution Unknown” and can’t find a citation to George (who died two years back, so i can’t ask him, drat it!).

    If you don’t know, no one will know, so i had to ask; and Happy New Year!

    Pax, Jeff

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