Tomorrow is Epiphany, and chances are high that you will hear at mass this refrain from “We Three Kings”:
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
And if you are not at mass tomorrow, I bet you know that song anyway. It was written by John H. Hopkins, Jr. in 1857.*
Another song that might be sung at Epiphany mass is “What Star is This”:
What star is this, with beams so bright,
More lovely than the noonday light?
ʹTis sent to announce a newborn King,
Glad tidings of our God to bring.
ʹTis now fulfilled what God decreed,
“From Jacob shall a star proceed;”
And lo! the eastern sages stand
To read in heav’n the Lord’s command.
That is by Charles Coffin (1676-1749), translated into English by John Chandler (1806-1876).
Every year around Christmas my most patient wife has to listen to me carry on about how the “Star of Bethlehem” could never have been the blazing beacon portrayed in Christmas cards and hung above Nativity scenes everywhere. Indeed, this year I also got to pontificate about this to all my neighbors, as we all observed the 2020 “Christmas star” Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
What is the basis of this pontification? Because the star described in the gospel of Matthew is no blazing beacon. The second chapter of Matthew begins with magi showing up in Jerusalem, looking for a newborn king of the Jews because they had seen his star. Matthew begins the star story with the magi; no one in Jerusalem had a clue about the star until the “astro-nerds” (magi) showed up and pointed it out to them.
This sounds just like the Great Conjunction of 2020. Who would have noticed it just by chance? After all, Jupiter had been in the evening sky since summer. Indeed, back then it had been both brighter and better placed for easy viewing. In the Conjunction, Saturn was far dimmer than Jupiter, and so its closeness to Jupiter did not make for any blazing beacon of light. People who might have been outside just because they were returning from work or taking an evening walk or carrying out the household trash would have been unlikely to look up at the sky and say “wow, look at that!” Even had they seen the Conjunction, they probably would not have thought much of the little star next to the bright star they had already been seeing for months.
But bring in some astro-nerds—people like me and the rest of the gang here at Sacred Space Astronomy, and perhaps even like you, O Reader—and now people learn about the Conjunction and understand why it is a big deal, and it makes the news. This is the sort of thing that Matthew describes.
Moreover, in verse 7 Matthew says that King Herod pulls the magi aside “and ascertain[s] from them the time of the star’s appearance”. Obviously, had the star been a blazing beacon, Herod would not have had to do that—everyone would have already known the time of the star’s appearance. Matthew’s gospel is discussing a celestial phenomenon that only the magi noticed; something that Herod saw only after the magi pointed it out—just like the Great Conjunction.
This raises the question of why so many Christmas carols describe a big, bright star. Plenty of them do. There are the two I mentioned above, and then there is also “As With Gladness Men of Old”, by William C. Dix, 1861:
As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold;
As with joy they hailed its light,
Leading onward, beaming bright;
So, most gracious Lord, may we
Evermore be led to thee.
There is “The First Noël”, a carol that dates from the 16th or 17th century:
They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the east beyond them far,
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night.
And by the light of that same star,
Three wise men came from country far,
To seek for a King was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.
Going back further, there is “This Endris Nyzgt”, or in modern English, “The Other Night”, a 15th-century English carol about Mary marveling over her child:
The other night I saw a sight,
A star as bright as day;
I listened long a maiden’s song,
Bye bye, lully lullay.
This lovely maiden sat and sang,
And to her Child did say:
“My son, my Brother, Father dear,
Bye bye, lully lullay.
“My sweetest One, whence art Thou come
Art Thou not God alway?
But none the less I will not cease,
To sing bye bye, lullay.
And going way, way, way back, there is “Bethlehem, of Noblest Cities”, by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius. He lived from 348 to 413. Yes, this song is from the 4th or early 5th century!
Fairer than the sun at morning
Was the star that told his birth;
To the lands their God announcing,
Seen in fleshly form on earth.
By its lambent beauty guided
See the eastern kings appear;
See them bend, their gifts to offer,
Gifts of incense, gold and myrrh.
These words are an English translation by Edward Caswall (1814-1878). Is the idea of a brilliant star in Prudentius’s original Latin? Indeed it is, at least in the first of these two verses:
Haec stella, quae solis rotam
vincit decore ac lumine,
venisse terris nuntiat
cum carne terrestri Deum.
Which I translate as,
This star, which excels the wheel of the sun in beauty and light, announces to the nations God coming in earthly flesh.
(The “lambent beauty” is not present in the Latin of the next verse.)
The idea of a brilliant Star of Bethlehem has been around a very long time, despite such a star standing plainly contrary to what is in Matthew. And such a star plainly downplays the importance of astro-nerds! Go figure that on this Epiphany. How this came to be could probably be turned into a good book, if it has not been already.
(And my thanks to my wife, who came up with the idea for this post and dug up all the songs except “Endris Nyzgt”.)
*Words and song information in this post are from the Ignatius Pew Missal 2020 and from Torstein O. Kvamme’s 1935 The Christmas Caroler’s Book in Song and Story.