December 19, 2015
Every year around Christmas, reports appear in the papers or on television which claim to give an astronomical explanation of the Star of Bethlehem: It was a comet, we’re told, or a supernova, or a reading in an astrological horoscope. These speculations miss the early Christian understanding of the Star that led the Magi.
St John Chrysostom, in his homily on Matthew chapter 2, explains clearly why the Star could not have been a natural phenomenon, but that it was an angelic appearance, like the Pillar of Cloud in the Old Testament.
You know that a spot of such small dimensions, being only as much as a shed would occupy, or rather as much as the body of a little infant would take up, could not possibly be marked out by a star. For by reason of its immense height, it could not sufficiently distinguish so confined a spot, and reveal it to those who were desiring to see it. And this anyone may see by the moon, which being so far superior to the stars, seems to all that dwell in the world to be near to each and every one of them. How then, tell me, did the star point out a spot so confined, just the space of a manger and shed, unless it left that height and came down, and stood over the very head of the young child? And at this the evangelist was hinting when he said, “Lo, the star went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.”
— The Gospel of St. Matthew, Homily VI. 3, 4
To recognize the Star we must look in the Old Testament, in Numbers 24:17, where the seer Balaam utters his great prophecy, “I will point to him, but not now; I bless him, but he does not come near. A Star shall dawn from Jacob, a Man shall arise out of Israel.” This is what we read in the Orthodox text, the Septuagint. The Hebrew says, instead, “a sceptre shall arise out of Israel.” St Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho 106, cites the verse, though instead of “man” he uses the word “ruler,” which is the word used in Matthew 2:6 in the citation of Micah.
Origen links the Magi with the prophecy of Balaam, implying the Star is a revelation of Christ Himself; Eusebius does the same. St Gregory of Nyssa also links the Magi with the prophecy of Balaam, and the hymnographer St Romanos, in his Kontakion for the Nativity, implies that the Star is Christ:
Ikos 5 (the Magi are speaking):
For Balaam laid before us precisely
The meaning of the words he spoke in prophecy,
When he said that a star would dawn,
A star that quenches all prophecies and auguries;
A star which resolves the parables of the wise,
And their sayings and their riddles,
A star far more brilliant than the star
Which has appeared, for he is the Maker of all the stars,
Of whom it was written of old, From Jacob there dawns
A little Child, God before the ages.