Daily Meditations

The Sixth Day of Christmas: The Star of Bethlehem

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.” (Ikos of the Kontakion of the Nativity)

ANOTHER POPULAR THEME and image of the Nativity is the Star of Bethlehem. This is yet another prophecy from the Old Testament:

“I will show Him, but not now; I bless Him, but He is not near. A Star shall rise out of Jacob; and a Man shall rise out of Israel.” (Num. 24:17)

Many assume that the Star of Bethlehem was an astronomical phenomenon. St. John Chrysostom did not agree. He gives four reasons the Star of Bethlehem was not really a star:

“That this star was not an ordinary one—or rather not a star at all, in my opinion—but some invisible power in the form of a star, is in the first place evident from its course. For not one of the stars moves like this, but whether you take the sun, or the moon, or all the other stars, we see them going from east to west; but this one travelled from north to south—for Palestine lies south of Persia.

Next, one can also draw this conclusion from the time. For it does not appear at night, but at midday, while the sun is shining; and no star can do this, not even the moon. For when the sun appears the moon immediately disappears. But the splendor of this star overcame even the rays of the sun and shone even brighter than them.

Thirdly, from its appearing and disappearing. For on their journey to Palestine it appeared leading them [the Magi], but after they reached Jerusalem, it hid itself. But when they had left Herod and were about to leave, it showed itself. This is nothing like the motion of a star, but of some highly rational power. It did not even have a direction of its own, but when they moved, it moved; when they stopped, it stopped, like the pillar of the cloud for the Israelites.

Fourthly, one can see this clearly from its way of indicating. For it did not remain high up to point out the place—for they could not have found it that way—but it came down and pointed it out. For surely such a small space, about the size of a hut, or rather of the body of a little child, could not possibly be marked out by a star, since the greatness of its height could not accurately indicate so confined a spot, and reveal it to those who wished to see it. And this anyone may see from the moon, which is far larger than the stars, yet seems equally near to everyone that lives on the whole wide world. How then, tell me, did the star point out a spot so confined—just the space of a manger or a hut—unless it left that height and came down, and stood over the very head of the young child? And this is what the Evangelist was hinting at when he said, “The star went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was” [Matt. 2:9].

Do you see by what a large number of proofs this star is shown not to be one of the many, nor to have shown itself according to the order of the visible creation?(1)

Chrysostom, like other Church Fathers, compares the Star of Bethlehem to the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire in Exodus 13:21- 22, which are clearly manifestations of God Himself:

God led them, by day in a pillar of cloud to show them the way, and by night in a pillar of fire. Thus the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before all the people. (Ex. 13:21-22)

Another manifestation of God in a cloud and an instance in which the light of God shone brighter than the sun is the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his Brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” (Matt. 17:1 – 5)

The bright cloud of Tabor is also compared by the Church Fathers to the pillar of cloud in the Old Testament, and the blinding light of the Transfiguration is considered a manifestation of the Uncreated Light—that is to say, the Light of God Himself. This may be the reason that the light of the Star of Bethlehem in the icons of the Nativity is painted in exactly the same way as the light of God on Mount Tabor in the icons of the Transfiguration.

The Star of Bethlehem was no star, but a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. He testifies to the Son of God, who bears witness to the Father.

~Vassilios Papavassiliou, Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth

1 Homily 6 on Matthew, PG 57:64.