At the peak of darkness this year, on December 21, there shone a light visible around the world, for people of all faiths and nations. The two largest planets in the solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, aligned to imitate the Star of Bethlehem seen by the Wise Men over two thousand years ago at the birth of Christ. It cannot be called a replica, being smaller in size and brightness than that which occurred above the miraculous Virgin birth taking place in the quiet hillside of Palestine, which offers little more than dry pasture land and a few abandoned caves.
Referring to Jesus, the first chapter of St John’s Gospel reminds us of this star over Bethlehem in strong words that echo throughout the New Testament and are prefigured in the Old. “All that came to be had life in Him, and that life was the light of men, a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower” (Jn 1:4-5).
Those Wise Men, or Magi, who saw that light in the Bethlehem sky, and then came to see the light of the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, were likely court advisers in Babylon who relied on star movements to help guide the king. Strikingly, as an example of how God helps us find our way back to Him in the midst of our ordinary circumstances, it seems that the Magi were led, through their preliminary interest in astrology, to the surer science of faith and trust in the Christ-Child by the very meanings they ascribed to the stars.
It is very possible the star they witnessed two thousand years ago involved the constellation Leo the Lion, the planet Venus, the planet Jupiter and the star Regulus. Babylonians understood the lion as Israel and Venus as motherhood. Jupiter represented fatherhood or kingship and Regulus denoted royalty, from the Latin ‘to rule’. With humble hearts, they interpreted that a great king had been born in Israel.
For the pagans of Babylon, the stars held meaning. But for the Magi, the stars directed them towards their true meaning, representing a willingness on the part of the Wise Men to sacrifice their old superstitions and go to follow the new Lord of whom they knew almost nothing. By most estimates, their journey across the Sumerian and Arabian deserts would have taken a significant amount of time and effort, a mark of grand faith and hope in Bethlehem’s newest and greatest child. It was with a childlike trust in their anticipated discovery that these seasoned astrologers embarked on bandit trails and traversed dry deserts with scarce water supplies, to drink from the well of “living water” (Jn 4:10) that Jesus would, thirty years later at the well of Sychar, offer that abandoned Samaritan woman and all who believe in Him.
When we move forwards two millennia to consider our time and place in God’s story for humanity, perhaps this minor ‘Star of Bethlehem’ is also a sign to us, equally prophetic and consoling that despite the harshness of this generation, there is light at the end of the tunnel. This light comes not just after particular crises our society may face, but at the end of our lives, where God and eternal ‘living water’ await for those who want it. The star of Bethlehem is a perpetual invitation to celebrate the coming of the Messiah, by definition the only true solution to our problems.
All Christians believe in the return of Jesus at the end of time, the Second Coming, which in many ways challenges our conception of God as a vulnerable child. Roman Catholics authentically believe the power of Christmas – and Easter, the fullness of God’s purpose for becoming man – is contained each day in the Holy Mass, whereby Jesus’ own flesh, later offered on the tree of the Cross to replace the rotten fruits of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, becomes the spiritual food for the journey into eternal life (Jn 6:35-58). Much like the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, who made the tiring and unwelcome journey to Bethlehem (Hebrew for ‘house of bread’) for Caesar’s authoritarian census, and then fled to Egypt on pain of death, we are also pilgrims and wanderers, and are in need of sustenance. The Christmas story refers to each one of us, journeying through foreign lands until we reach our heavenly destination.
This is the meaning of Christmas, and why we celebrate it each year. We celebrate the fact that those who lack earthly peace because of wars, persecutions and sickness are now offered by God a deeper and eternal peace untouched by worldly powers. We celebrate that those who suffer poverty with grace, will be rich in the world to come. We celebrate the fact that those who show mercy and generosity, like the Magi and the shepherds, will receive it from God in abundance. In short, we celebrate the Beatitudes, incarnated in the person of Jesus and perfectly imitated by Mary.
There has been much talk recently of ‘the cancellation of Christmas’. In many countries around the world this Advent season, churches are some of the only buildings still open, as are of course homes, frequently styled ‘domestic churches’. If it is true that God lived in a poor family with little to eat, let alone theatre tickets and crates full of artificially bright presents, then surely having one Christmas without them must be an awakening and a blessing, in order to realise the reason for the customs.
Individually and collectively, stuffed with pride and our pockets full of toys, if we do not admire and try to imitate the virtues of the Baby Jesus, will we ever truly celebrate Christmas? Are the commercialised and sanitised Christmases we are so used to by now, and so tired of, simply excuses for hedonism? Have we been celebrating Christmas behind a veil all these years?
As we walk past Nativity scenes, whether in homes, schools or churches, we are reminded that “all is vanity” (Ecc 1:2) and that, if it is true that God became not only a man but a carpenter, and not just a baby but born to a poor family with no room at the inn, then the poor are truly the richest on this earth. The abandoned and destitute are the most loved, because material and emotional poverty of the kind millions have experienced this year strip away our superficialities, and present us directly with the paradoxical poverty and dejection of the all-loving God. Necessity is the mother of honesty, you could say.
Many people understandably doubt the veracity of the Gospel claims. Yet there is more historical evidence Jesus existed than Julius Caesar. Jesus’ Apostles, and the first thirty-three Popes were martyred for holding to their witness accounts.
The next time you hear the words ‘Christmas is cancelled’, know that the opposite is at hand. Instead, the urgent signs of the times implore us to celebrate it more profoundly than ever before. Although the externals may look different to our expectations, we may benefit from throwing the “money changers” (Jn 2:13) out of the temple, and reminding ourselves where true joy lasts.
The time has arrived to rejoice, not because of our efforts but for God’s, and to lift the veil or ‘Apocalypse’ behind the true meaning of Christmas, which is for all times and all people an unshakeable light in the heavens.