Christmas Starlight

HAT was the star, that light that led ``wise men'' to Bethlehem? Modern astronomers would like to account for this celestial light. It occurred over a period of at least several months. It aroused the curiosity of a group of sky watchers of the day, perhaps Zoroastrian astrologers in Babylon. They had time to journey by camel to follow the ``star,'' stop to consult with King Herod, then eventually find the ``babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.''

A meteor could have made a spectacular show, but only for a few seconds at most. A nova or supernova star wouldn't travel across the sky the way the Bethlehem star did, rising ``in the east.'' Perhaps it was a comet. Or a rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, which, moving in concert in the pitch-black sky of biblical times, would have been a bright and dramatic sight.

In reality, it doesn't matter if any of these is the answer, or whether some other kind of light guided these visitors and drew shepherds nigh. They all sensed something special lay ahead if they but followed it.

Perhaps this yearning for light is why early Christians began celebrating the birth of Jesus at the winter solstice, the time of the least daylight of the year.

While short on sunbeams, this holy day, or holiday, blazons forth ``spiritual understanding,'' which Webster's dictionary gives as a definition of light. ``The people which sat in darkness saw great light,'' records the book of Matthew, explaining the import of the nativity, ``and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death, light is sprung up.''

Underneath a skin of urgent materialism, 1994 saw an accelerated search for spiritual light. The media were fascinated by angels: What form do they take? Do they guard and guide us? Bookstores were full of best-sellers on spiritual subjects; Time magazine's man of the year, Pope John Paul II, wrote one of them. The record of Christian healing, and public interest in it, continued to grow.

The poem ``Christmas Eve,'' by Charles Henry Mackintosh, notes:

There in the light of that supernal star,

Which only love and faith in love can see,

Let us rededicate all that we are

To all that God intended us to be.

Thus only may the star announce the birth

In us of peace and warm goodwill to earth.

May this star's light be with us all - now and the whole year around.

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