The traditional imagery of the Christmas story paints a vivid scene: a bright star suspended above the Bethlehem stable, like a pinpoint on a vast map, orchestrating the path of the wise men as they journey to honour the newborn Christ. This star has been a source of fascination to many, evoking questions about its true nature. Was it simply a bright light in the sky? A planet or comet? How did it effectively guide the Magi to a humble village in Judea?
Before he became a priest, Fr Douglas McGonagle was an astronomer who wondered about the astral phenomenon described in the Gospel account of the Magi. Starting with his knowledge of stars and the Gospels, Fr McGonagle follows a trail of clues through the history and politics of first-century Judea, the principles of ancient astronomy, and even the coinage that circulated in the Roman Empire at the time. What ensues is a compelling account of what the Magi might have seen in the night sky, how it led them to discern the birth of the King of the Jews, and what this means for Christians today.
The Star of Bethlehem: Q & A with the Author – Fr Douglas McGonagle
What is so fascinating about the Star of Bethlehem?
I have never visited Jerusalem. When we read of these sights in the Gospel, we can only imagine what they must have looked like. All of us, however, have seen a star filled night sky. I think that is the fascination of the Star: we can go out and see the Moon and Jupiter drift through the night sky. We can see exactly what Jesus, Mary and Joseph saw.
What impact can an understanding of the Star of Bethlehem have on our faith?
We are separated from the Evangelists by two thousand years. The world has changed while we humans have not. Any time we can gain a better understanding of the world in which our ancestors in the Faith lived the easier it is easier for us to “walk in their sandals” and so let the Gospel speak to us as clearly as it did to them.
How can reflecting on the Star of Bethlehem help prepare us for Christmas?
The poetic image of a bright light in the heavens dispelling the darkness is exactly what Christmas is all about. Christ, the Light of the World, became one of us while the world then was held by a darkness very much as our world is today. The Star reminds us: the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkens did not overcome it. (Jn 1:5)