Friday, January 27, 2017

Star Gazing

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Christmas tree has been chucked outside weeks ago. The star tree-topper has been packed in its box and shoved under the stairs, and the Church calendar says it’s already well into Epiphany. But perhaps we should take one last look at the star.

Christmas cards and carols usually get a little hasty when it comes to the Natal star and the characters surrounding its appearance. Sometimes they just get it wrong. Scripture doesn’t say there were three magi, but we get hung up on the number and even give the wise guys nifty names like and Melchior and Valspar and Curly.

Scripture, however, does indeed mention a star as drawing Gentile magi to the Light of the world.

The star has been used in Christian symbolism for ages. In fact, the star has been used in so many forms and in so many applications – sacred, secular, and pagan – that it’s probably a good idea to refresh ourselves with a few of its uses.

Living in a country whose flag is emblazoned with 50 stars is an easy reminder that the five-pointed star is largely used by global, secular powers. For the simple reason of separating sacred from the secular, it’s sometimes a good idea to avoid the five-pointed star, even though Christendom is deeply saturated with the variation.

Another reason to avoid that particular star is that offense is occasionally taken by fringe groups who equate any five-pointed star with the pentagram and its association with devil worship. The pentagram, however, is always shown inverted, and is usually depicted with a traced outline and additional satanic symbols.

Six-pointed stars are another type with equally-confusing variants. The knee-jerk reaction is to equate any six-pointed star with the Jews or the Israeli state. If the star is a solid shape, however, it is known as the Creator’s Star. The same shape that is traced with interlocking outlines is what adorns the Israeli flag and has been an ancient identifier of the Jews as a people. To confuse things, both variations show up on rare occasions in Christian symbolism.

The star also shows up in other permutations in Christendom, sporting as many points – four, seven, nine, twelve, etc. – as is needed to visually stress a doctrinal, uh, point.

The eight-pointed star is arguably one of the best forms, especially when considering Epiphany. If you’re counting, the number eight is associated with regeneration, resurrection, Holy Baptism, and heaven itself. By extending the bottom point of the star – giving it “A tail as big as a kite” [my sincere apologies] – it takes on a Latin cruciform shape. Not only so, but the diagonal rays become reminiscent of a specific cross – the Resurrection Cross. Hence, this type of star underscores Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection in a single symbol.

The next time you visit a church sanctuary, look up. It has been a loose tradition throughout the ages to paint stars on nave ceilings. Sometimes the stars are executed in gold leaf. Sometimes the ceiling is painted blue – perhaps even garishly so. This isn’t to give the impression of worshipping al fresco, but instead is a reference to the angels or pastors, both bearers of the Light of Heaven through the Gospel.

Grace Episcopal Church, Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., undergoes restoration of a recently-uncovered ceiling covered with hundreds of eight-pointed stars. (Photo courtesy of The New York Times)

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