This year I have sent my Christmas greetings with a card saying in Latin: Orietur stella—“A star shall rise.” It is a prophecy we find in the book of Numbers, which reports four oracles of Balaam, a pagan soothsayer, to whom the king of Moab Balak had ordered to curse the Israelites headed for the promised land. But Balaam, instead of cursing the Israelites, inspired by God against his will, was forced to bless them. In his fourth oracle Balaam foretells what is going to happen many years later: “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall rise out of Jacob, and a scepter shall spring up from Israel” (24:17 NAB/DR). The Jews saw in this oracle a reference to king David, who was a descendant of Jacob; Christians have always understood it as a messianic prophecy: the star and the scepter are symbols of Christ.
The gospel of this Vigil Mass presents the genealogy of Jesus starting from the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Matthew tells us that Jesus is “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” So, he is that star, which should rise out of Jacob, that scepter, which should spring up from Israel. When the Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, they said: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage” (Mt 2:2 NAB). Christmas is the fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy: with the nativity of Jesus Christ a star has risen out of Jacob, a scepter has sprung up from Israel. The rising of the star is no longer a future event; it belongs to the past. And now we are here precisely to commemorate that event. So, is it wrong to repeat that prophecy at the future? I don’t think so; not only because we are waiting for the second coming of the Lord at the end of time, but also because we can—maybe we must—hope for a spiritual return of Christ within history, especially in times, like ours, when he seems to be completely absent. Orietur stella, therefore, wants to be a wish for Jesus to be reborn in today’s world. Stars have always represented a point of reference for men: especially in the past, when there were no other instruments of orientation, people used to look up at stars, to know where to go. Well, today, with our scientific knowledge and the development of technology, we do not need stars any longer. Likewise, we think that we can do without the “Star” that for ages has oriented the life of humankind. The results of this conceit are under everybody’s eyes.
Matthew’s gospel tells us that the Magi came from the east. According to an ancient tradition, one of them, Caspar, hailed from the Kushan Empire, corresponding to present-day Afghanistan. The sentence they addressed to Herod (“We saw his star at its rising”) can be translated—and actually has been translated for ages—as follows: “We saw his star in the east.” It is here that the Magi saw the star which led them to Jesus. Now we consider these lands, these peoples totally extraneous to Christ. And yet it is precisely from here, from the heart of Asia, that the first worshippers of Christ came. So, what prevents us from wishing that same star may rise again in the east, that is, here, where we live? Orietur stella.
A friend, to whom I had sent my greeting “Merry Christmas,” replied correcting me: “I wish you a Holy Christmas.” Actually, we should acknowledge that we have lost the sense of sacred even when we are dealing with sacred things. Which does not happen in Muslim countries and among the Nasrānī (“the Nazarenes”), namely the Christians living in them. So, allow me to wish you a “Blessed Christmas” in the language of this country, with the words used by the Nasrānī:
عید میلاد مسیح مبارک (῾īd-e-mīlād-e-masīh mubārak)