January 10, 2014


Following the Star of Wonder

“O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect Light.”

The refrain of the popular Christmas carol “We Three Kings” written by John Henry Hopkins, Jr. in 1857, speaks directly to the star of Bethlehem that inspired “wise men from the East” to travel to Jerusalem around the time of Jesus’ birth. “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him” (Mt. 2:1).

Tradition attributes to these inspired travelers many different characteristics. First of all, they are said to be wise. Not only did they observe a strange phenomenon in the heavens (some astronomers say it may have been a supernova caused by the conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars), but they discerned its significance for the future of the human race and determined to go and see for themselves the newborn “king of the Jews.”

According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, “The men of whom Matthew speaks are not just astronomers. They were ‘wise.’ They represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence ‘philosophy’ in the original sense of the word.” True wisdom includes, but is much more than, science. It seeks the fullness of understanding—taking into account the spiritual dimension of things as well as the material.

Tradition also assigns these foreign visitors from the East (literally, “the land of the sunrise”) the dignity of kings from all of the then-known continents: Africa, Asia and Europe. This underscores the Church’s conviction that, as Pope Benedict writes, “in the kingdom of Jesus Christ there are no distinctions of race and origin. In him and through him, humanity is united, yet without losing any of the richness of variety.” Some legends even associate the three wise men with three phases of human experience—youth, maturity and old age. Every stage of human development, this tradition asserts, finds its ultimate meaning in the person of Jesus Christ.

“The key point is this,” Pope Benedict tells us, “the wise men from the East are a new beginning. They represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ. They initiate a procession that continues throughout history.” This makes the wise travelers from the land of the sunrise the first Christian pilgrims. Although they had not yet found him, they were seekers. Pope Benedict sees these wise seekers as representing the synthesis of faith and reason. “Not only do they represent the people who have found the way to Christ: they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason toward him.”

It is the star of wonder that leads the way. Whatever its scientific explanation, the celestial light that shone brilliantly in the year 7-6 B.C. was a miracle of God’s grace. More than a century later, St. Ignatius of Antioch had a vision of the sun and the moon dancing around this magnificent star, which an ancient hymn for the feast of the Epiphany proclaims “outshone the sun in beauty and brilliance.” Star of wonder, star of night, star of royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.

The “perfect light” is Jesus Christ, light of the world. Wisdom leads us to him. Faith together with reason, spirituality and science, point the way to him. Or as Pope Benedict says, “It is not the star that determines the child’s destiny, it is the child that directs the star.” The child born of Mary, who is God’s only begotten son, “is greater than all the powers of the material world, greater than the entire universe.”

We are called to follow this star. Using our God-given intelligence, and the gift of faith, we are called to seek the light of Christ and follow it. May the wisdom of the Magi inspire us to seek—and find—the light of the world.

May this light make us faithful stewards of the gifts we bring—our own variations of the wise men’s gold, frankincense and myrrh—as we fall on our knees to worship him in spirit and in truth.

—Daniel Conway

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!