Year B – The Epiphany

The Light of the Stars

[Is.60:1-6; Eph.3:2-3, 5-6; Mt.2:1-12]

‘I am the light of the world,’ Jesus says (Jn.8:12).

Perhaps this explains why so many people in every age have been drawn to the light of the stars.

Ancient civilisations like the Egyptians, Babylonians and Aztecs, for example, were convinced that the sun, moon and stars had much to teach us about life. Their astronomers studied the skies, searched for patterns and signs, and told stories that shaped the lives of entire cultures. [i]

The Wise Men of the East were among these people. They searched the stars for the secrets they held, and even travelled long distances to find the answers.

That’s what we see in Matthew’s Gospel today. The Magi discover a bright new star and follow it all the way to Jerusalem, where they are directed to Bethlehem. And there they find the infant Jesus. They worship Him and give Him their precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and then they return home with the finest gift of all: eternal life as faithful children of God.

Today, many people continue to look for signs of God’s presence in the cosmos, and one place they find such stars is in the famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The story is well known. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Aztec peasant, on Tepeyac hill near present-day Mexico City in the winter of 1531. She asked him to get his bishop to build a church there. The bishop asked for a sign, so Juan Diego returned to that hilltop and found roses blooming in winter. Collecting them in his tilma (a loose cloak), he took them to the bishop. On arrival, his tilma miraculously bore a striking portrait of Our Lady.

Today, almost 500 years later, that cactus-fibre tilma is on display in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on that same hill. It depicts Mary as a mestizo woman in traditional clothing, surrounded by the rays of the sun, standing on a crescent moon, and pregnant, just as she is described in Revelation 12:1-2.

In the 1990s, Juan Hernandez Illescas, a Mexican astronomer, used computer technology to closely study the stars on Our Lady’s mantle. What he found attests to the miraculous origin of this image.

Illescas identified that the configuration of 46 stars on Mary’s blue-green mantle is neither random nor simply decorative, for they exactly mirror the 15 constellations that were visible over Mexico that night in December 1531.

Significantly, the stars on this image are inverted (north should be south and vice versa), indicating that we see them not as someone standing on earth, but from the perspective of someone above, as though God Himself were hovering over his own creation.

Because Mary’s mantle is wrapped around her, ten of these constellations are visible, while five others are at her back and obscured. Illescas identified that if her garment were to be opened out to its fullness, we would see all 15 constellations at once. These are the five unseen constellations (underlined in yellow in the figure below):

Corona Borealis (‘Northern Crown’), which appears at Mary’s head, forming a crown of stars (Rev.12:1).

Virgo (‘Virgin’), near her heart, indicating her purity (Lk.1:28).

Leo (‘Lion’), at her pregnant belly, reminding us that she is carrying the Lion of Judah, Jesus Himself (Gen.49:9-12; Rev.5:3-7).

Gemini (‘The Twins’) over Mary’s lap, which has often been called the ‘Seat of Wisdom’ since the 11th Century.

And Orion (‘Warrior/Hunter’), over the angel below. Some say this represents the great warrior, St Michael the Archangel.

Mary appeared to Juan Diego before dawn on 22 December, the winter solstice and longest night of the year in that part of the world. [ii] Thereafter, the days grew longer. In other words, Mary brought with her ‘the dawn from on high,’ Jesus Christ, to the local people, signalling an end to the darkness of paganism. Within 10 years, almost the entire population of Mexico converted to Christianity. [iii]

The name Guadalupe is of Arabic origin, and means ‘river channel’ or ‘that which leads the water.’ Like the bright Star of Bethlehem, Mary is the channel that always leads us to her beloved Son, ‘the Living Water’ (Jn.4:14). [iv]

It’s not surprising that so many people are fascinated by the stars.

In 2014, Pope Francis said that the journey of the Magi symbolises the destiny of every person. Our life is a journey, he said, illuminated by the lights which brighten our way, to find the fullness of truth and love which we recognize in Jesus, the Light of the World.

[i] Maryboy, NC & Begay, D., Sharing the Skies, Rio Nuevo Publishers, Tucson AZ, 2010.

[ii] The date 22 December is according to our modern calendar. According to the Julian Calendar of the time, it was 12 December.