Q: What are we as Catholics to think about the historical character of the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem? Are the Magi real or figurative? Was there really a star?
A: Pope Benedict XVI – the former Joseph Ratzinger, a world-class theologian in his own right – has helped us all sort out the key issues relating to the Magi. Pope Benedict summarized the latest essential data in Volume III of Jesus of Nazareth, surely one of the most astonishing pieces of theological updating ever provided by a Pope while in office. Remember, this was provided not specifically as de fide doctrine, which enlightens as to understanding, but rather as the careful conclusions of a recognized theologian who happened to be elected Pope.
First, as a general principle, Benedict urges great caution with respect to those commentators who would dismiss the Gospel story of the Magi as metaphor or thin poetry. The narrative is obviously there for a reason, and we should begin our study by acknowledging that what is related about the star and the visit of the Magi are descriptions of fact, not of fantasy.
Benedict’s own words on the topic are very instructive:
"It would be wrong to dismiss it [the star cited by Matthew] a priori on account of the theological character of the story. With the emergence of modern astronomy, developed by believing Christians, the question of this star has been revisited."
In view of recent studies, Johannes Kepler’s theory (d. 1630) is in ascendancy again. Kepler, a German mathematician, thought that the Star of Bethlehem, whose appearance occurred around 7-6 B.C., could have been caused by a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. Because of the brilliance of the star, whose light could be seen over a duration of weeks or months, Kepler interpreted it in the context of a possible supernova. (Pope Benedict refers to an ancient Chinese chart indicating a bright star "…visible for quite a long time" around 4 B.C.)
Moreover, the Pope adds, even if the theory of the supernova is questionable, its nature could also be explained simply by the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. In other words, some astronomers suggest, the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the Constellation Pisces would adequately explain the star. This conjunction did occur around 7-6 B.C.
Again, however, understanding the nature of the star is found only on the periphery of the issue. Even though we may never know with certainty the origin of the star, or why it was that the Magi were searching for it and chose to follow it (there are fascinating theories about these aspects of Matthew’s narrative), the principal truth has always been, and will surely continue to be, quite obvious; specifically (in Pope Benedict’s words), "the cosmos speaks for Christ…" Also, the cosmos, which is God’s creation, "gives man an intuition of the Creator… [and] elicits awareness that man can and should approach [God]…"
Notice, too: Nature, creation and astronomy can lead us, as reason can lead us, Godward.
Notice, too, the three gifts which the Magi brought: gold, venerating the Kingship of Christ; incense, acknowledging Christ’s divine sonship; myrrh, foreshadowing Christ’s Passion and death. (Myrrh is cited in St. John’s Gospel; recall that Nicodemus helped anoint Jesus’ lifeless body with ointments containing myrrh.)
Notice, too, how the Magi acquired both the wisdom to discern the sign of the star as a form of divine intervention visible to the human intellect; again, the language of creation, as Pope Benedict has written, speaks of God and his Christ.
Thus the Wise Men and the star represent "the journey of humanity toward Christ." They initiate a procession that continues until today (and beyond) throughout the chapters of history. Anyone who is in quest of the Lord will find him. Hence, the Magi symbolize the innermost yearnings of the human soul – of each person.