680053eb40158728ac876a58b82c2025 203x300 What Star Is This?From the January/February 2016 issue of Touchstone, senior editor Anthony Esolen looks at the Christmas hymn, What Star is This?


. . . “I see a star rise out of Jacob,” said Balaam, prophet on the take, and he did not know what his own words would mean. The wise men from Persia, no doubt familiar with the Hebrew prophecies, followed the path of a light across the heavens—a comet, a conjunction of planets, a nova?—to the house of the baby Jesus, and there they opened their coffers to him, giving him gifts that revealed who he is, as under figures and shadows: gold for his kingship, frankincense for his high priesthood, and myrrh for his most royal and most holy death. The sages themselves could not have plumbed the meaning of their gifts.

And indeed, everything on either side of the Epiphany dwells in a kind of twilight before dawn. The will of God is revealed to Joseph in dreams, four times, and that good man utters not one word. The sages go where there should be light, to Herod the king of Judea, and to his counselors, and these tell him that the Christ would be born in the House of Bread, Bethlehem, the city of David. But the sages seem instead to look again to the silent star for direction, and after they see the child, they too dream dreams, and go home by a secret route, filled with rejoicing.

If only the star they saw would shine for us, we too might go seek the young child and do him homage! But it does shine for us. It shines in the dark and quiet working of grace. That is the lesson of What Star Is This, a hymn that urges us to be on our way, best sung to the vigorous alternating quarter notes and half notes of Praetorius’ Puer Nobis. The first two stanzas place us with the wise men on their journey, as they treasure the prophecies in their hearts: . . .