Cosmic Symbolism: The Star on the Forehead of Our Mother of Perpetual Help


I. The Word and its Occurrences in the Bible

This is how the Spanish dictionary defines the word star: (from the Latin stella) each of the innumerable celestial bodies that shine in the sky, except for the sun and the moon. Figurative sense: to be happy, lucky, to spontaneously attract other people’s attention, to standout for extraordinary talent; to praise in excess; to become irritated; to attempt something difficult or impossible; to feel strong pain (to see the stars). In Greek, it is astér, from where we get asterisk. In Hebrew, kokáb (pl. kokabím) is the normal translation of aster.

In the Old Testament (OT), the word star appears 20 times; and in the New, 24. Another word used as a synonym of star is ástron, heavenly body, constellation (Gen 15:5, 22:17; Ex 32:13), from where we get the word astronomy. This word appears 41 times in the OT. In total, they are few, but express many and varied meanings, from the literal to the figurative, according to each context.

In the New Testament (NT), the word astér appears 24 times, 13 of which are in Revelation. Ástron appears only four times: Lk 21:25, Acts 7:43, 27:20, Heb 11:12. Also in the NT, astér and ástron have interchanging meaning (Lk 21:25, Mt 2:2). On the one hand, we say that the stars are in the sky, and on the other, we know they are not independent from earth, for they are its light at night, besides the sun and the moon. For our commentary, let us take the word astér.

II. The Old Testament

In the OT, the sun, the moon and the stars are among the first things created by God, on the fourth day (Gen 1:14-18). It is not coincidental that this part of creation appears on the central day of the seven: the fourth. Although God rested on the seventh day (2:2), the fourth completes the week. According to the structure of seven, the fourth day stands out for the creation of light (the sun, the moon and the stars). Thus, this creation completes and makes perfect the rest: “‘Let there be light.’ And there was light” (1:3-4). Light becomes the symbol of life, represented by the heavenly bodies from where it shines. Darkness and shadows, on the contrary, disappear, and become the symbol of death.

Human inability to count the stars is put by God to Abraham as a comparison to the descendants he will have (Gen 15:5, 22:17; 1 Chr 27:23; Neh 9:23), as well as his son Isaac (26:4). Joseph provokes his brothers’ scorn when he tells them his dream: the sun, the moon and the stars adore him (37: 9-11). Contrasting with his brothers’ ire, Israel, his father, perceives in Joseph’s dream a sign from heaven. The sun, the moon and the stars exert so much power on man that he is compelled to adore them, something reserved for God alone. For this reason, a strict prohibition to succumb to this temptation is issued (Deut 4:19). Celebrating Israel’s enemy, Sisera’s death, Deborah sings: “The stars fought from heaven” (Judg 5:20). With these words, victory is attributed to God. In prayer, the intelligent man knows how to recognize God’s power, contemplating what He has created, above all the sun, the moon and the stars (Ps 8:4), manifestation of his omnipotence, contrasting with what man is: nothing, compared to Him. The exhortation to value his marvelous works is so powerful that by disobeying it, man creates a situation comparable to the extinction of the sun, the moon and the stars (Eccl 12:2), that is life.

The sun, the moon and the stars are used to describe Israel’s glory, recalling its moments of power over the other nations, in particular its friendship with God (Eccl 5:6-7). They are also used to express the opposite extreme: when God abandons his people due to their infidelity (Joel 4:15; Isa 13:10; Jer 8:2). To reach the heavens, bring down the stars and trample them is an expression of extreme disobedience, according to Daniel 8:10, because it is to profane the place where God lives. In his oracles against Israel, Jeremiah alludes to God’s power by saying: “He who gives the sun to light the day, moon and stars to light the night; Who stirs up the sea till its waves roar… If ever these natural laws give way in spite of me… Israel [shall] cease as a nation before me forever” (31:35-36). The Lord, who is almighty, purifies Israel and still loves it, keeping His promise. The things of heaven, being imposing for their light and splendor, respect the voice of their creator. When He calls they answer: “Present.” They keep happy vigil from their place, and with their light, give glory to the Lord (Bar 3:34-35).

Conclusion about the Old Testament and link with the New

The word star is often used in the plural, and most cases, the figurative senses, positive and negative, prevail over the literal. Moreover, the three are almost always mentioned together: sun, moon and stars. The three are the sum and symbols of the rest, for being the most visible. This general meaning is also present in the NT. Let us look at this continuity, paying attention to that which is specific to the NT, that is the theological progress implied in the word star.

III. The New Testament

After the Book of Revelation, the Gospel of Matthew is the one which uses the word star (astér) the most. In 2:2, the Magi learn of Jesus, the king of the Jews’ birth through a star, according to the promise in Numbers 24:17, in which they believe. This is why this sign is only interpreted by them, and not by non-believers, like Herod (2:7). As a matter of fact, it appears to them again when they leave him, which fills them with joy (2:10). According to Matthew, the Savior’s birth is announced by a star (2:2), the same one that was offered in the past as a sign to recognize him, at the end of time. With Jesus’ arrival, light arrives into the world. This sign, the star together with the sun and the moon (24:29) will be seen at the end of time, when earth will be transformed, in eschatological time (24:29; Mk 13:25; Lk 21:25). Being firm in the sky, they will suffer the change of the whole universe. The life and light of the three, the sun, the moon and the stars, is so well known by all that Paul uses it as a symbolism to explain the resurrection of the dead to his fellow Christians. Their light is very similar, yet each gives a different light. Thus will be the new life. All will share in the resurrection, yet each conserving his/her identity (1 Cor 15:41).

Describing the lot of the enemies of the kingdom of heaven, the book of Jude compares them to shooting stars that end up in darkness (1:13). Impious sins are already condemned to death by the Lord, without hope of life. The comparison with shooting stars is explained by the opposition to fixed stars, permanent light. A twinkle does not suffice to please God, who demands from all their life.

In the NT, it is the book of Revelation that speaks the most about stars. The first context where they are mentioned is the resurrection (1:16, 20). Just as Jesus’ birth was announced by a star (Mt 2:2, 7, 9, 10), in his resurrection John sees him with seven stars on his right hand (1:16). John’s vision does not go unexplained. The Risen Lord tells him they are the seven churches (1:20). In his right hand, the stars symbolize possession. The risen Jesus is Lord and master of heaven and earth, both represented by one of the most powerful symbols of the universe: the stars. The equivalence of the seven stars with the seven churches again connects heaven and earth. The seven churches are on earth (2-3) and, nonetheless, partake in the life of heaven, represented by the stars. The risen Jesus possesses them as His own, for they are in his right hand. Because He is the master of the churches, He presents Himself with them like this: “This is what the one who has the seven stars in his right hand says” (2:1, 3:1). He speaks to them to exhort them, admonish them and encourage them to progress in the practice of faith, promising them rewards. One of them is the gift of the “morning star” (2:28).

From 6:13 to 9:1, Revelation speaks of stars describing a negative symbolism. At the opening of the seventh seal, the stars fall from heaven like green figs shaken by a hurricane (6:13), marking the beginning of the judgment to which God submits all the inhabitants of earth, without being able to escape it. A star called “Wormwood” falls from the sky and makes bitter one-third of earth’s water (8:10-11), killing many people. Another falls from the sky and opens up the abyss, causing the next plague (9:1). As there is no repentance, the punishment continues. A third of the sun, the moon and the stars are darkened. The punishment is so harsh that people want death, but death flees from them (9:6). The hardness of heart is so strong that repentance never arrives. Homicides, curses, lust, robberies… all these things continue to be the attractive aspects of life on earth (9:21). Despite the obstinacy, the judgment cannot be stopped, because the Lord is interested in the faithful.

Chapter 12, the story of the woman and the dragon, mentions stars twice. The first time (12:1), as a symbol of royal power. The second (12:4), as symbol of weakness. The woman has twelve stars on her head (12:1). This number refers to the twelve apostles, and by the same logic, to the totality of the Church, highlighting its divine dimension. That woman is the Church, first, and second, it is logical and necessary to make a Marian interpretation, since the Church is inconceivable without Mary, her mother and model of faith. In her fight against the demon, the woman is helped by her Lord. The dragon throws down one-third of heaven’s stars (12:4), in a futile attempt to take over heaven, exclusive to God, whose sovereignty is defended by His angels, throwing the dragon to earth (12:7-9). Since it has no place in heaven, it now exercises its power on earth, fighting those who follow God’s commandments (12:17).

In Revelation 22:16, we have the last reference to the stars, in Jesus’ mouth: “I am the morning star.” Jesus describes himself with this symbol, which says everything. His person is the new and eternal light, completing and perfecting the first (Gen 1:3-4, 16-18). Let us pay attention to the evolution and progress from one thing (the star [Genesis]) to a person (Jesus [Revelation]). The symbolism of light as life runs through the Bible from the first to the last book, and this symbolism concentrates on reference to stars. In Revelation 2:28, Jesus promises the victor “the morning star.” Then in 22:16, He says, “I am the morning star.” What does it mean? Whoever wins the battle against evil will have as prize, personal communion with Him.

Conclusion and link with Our Mother of Perpetual Help’s Star

In the NT, like in the Old, stars appear in all their meanings, especially the figurative ones. Among these, the most numerous are the positive ones, because with them are expressed spiritual and divine realities; among which Jesus calling himself “star” stands out (Rev 22:16), opposed and triumphant over the star that symbolizes evil (Rev 9:1). The seven churches are called “stars” (Rev 1:20, 2:1, 3:1), placed in the right hand of the risen Jesus (Rev 1:16). What relationship is there between this biblical information and the star on the veil covering Our Mother of Perpetual Help’s forehead?

IV. The Star on Our Mother of Perpetual Help’s Forehead

On the virgin’s forehead, the star unfolds all its positive meanings, encompassing multiple dimensions: cosmic, biblical, Christological, ecclesiological, liturgical and anthropological.

A) Cosmic. We have seen that the stars are almost always mentioned along with the sun and the moon, for all three are symbols of light. They shine by nature, and therefore, are the most visible. They are the synthesis of the cosmos, their make-up and beauty. Each is mentioned, both in the Bible and other texts, with many figurative meanings, human and spiritual. Having a star on her forehead, the virgin is seen as queen and mistress of the world created by God, with its order and beauty. Having been on earth with us, she now fills the earth with her presence, and the star symbolizes her dominion over it. Light, life, power… everything that is good is expressed in her star.

B) Biblical. Let us recall the passage from Revelation 12:1. The woman appears in heaven, dressed with the sun, the moon on her feet, and a crown of twelve stars. The three appear together again. In this passage, as vestment and adornment of the woman. The sun is her dress, the moon her pedestal. The verb in the passive voice (dressed) means that God has dressed her with the sun, has put the moon on her feet, and crowned her with twelve stars on her head. Cosmic symbolism is at its peak, for there are three heavenly bodies, and their assigned meaning. Besides fulfilling their purpose for which they were created, to light the earth and the sky, they are used as adornment on a person: a woman, who is the Church, presided by Mary, Jesus’ mother. This woman, living on earth, is already mistress of heaven, where the heavenly bodies that adorn her are, precisely the brightest ones.

C) Christological. The Christological meaning of the star is as evident as the others. A star announced the Savior’s coming (Num 24:17) and makes Him known on His birthday (Mt 2:2). Without heaven’s sign, humanity may have never known him. Jesus, the Christ, is the absolute center of creation. He shows it by holding seven stars in his right hand (Rev 1:6), sign of his power over the natural world, and especially, over the Church, to which He gives confidence and security in the midst of the tribulations caused by her enemies. He promises a reward to those who overcome temptation (Rev 2:28), who end up with Him (22:16): He is the reward. With the star on her forehead, the Virgin shows her exclusive relation with Jesus Christ, whose mother and disciple she is at one and the same time. We all enjoy fraternity with Jesus and Mary’s maternity, yet not in the same degree. Their relationship is a unique privilege.

D) Ecclesiological. Among so many passages, let us use Revelation 12 again. The woman is described with contrasting characteristics. She is seen in the sky (12:1) but suffering in labor (12:2). Heaven’s song (12:10-12) contrasts with earth’s tribulations (12:13). The woman’s descendants escaped death (12:5) yet are still threatened (12:17). This is the Church’s experience, the community formed by those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus (12:17b), seen in her two dimensions, triumphant and sorrowful simultaneously. One dimension is as true as the other. The crown of twelve stars (12:1) is an advanced guarantee of her glory. Therefore, it is not strange to see a star on the virgin’s forehead, for she is Jesus’ mother, historical person who shared with Him the tribulation proper to the preaching of God’s kingdom. John’s vision (12:1) is not a product of his imagination removed from reality. On the contrary, he was inspired by a specific person: Mary, paradigm of the Church. Her star is symbol of power on heaven and earth.

We should also develop the liturgical meaning. The risen Jesus, with the seven stars on his right hand, is seen by John next to seven gold candelabra (Rev 1:12-13) and these are liturgical objects (Ex 25:31-35). Moreover, the anthropological meaning should also be mentioned. Mary is the model of personal plenitude, especially woman’s. With the star on her forehead, she reminds us that heaven is our goal.

General Conclusion

Cosmic symbolism is found in the star that Our Mother of Perpetual Help has on her forehead. Its meaning, above all, is religious. Seen by us from earth, the icon of the Virgin reminds us of heaven, showing us the star, where God lives. The star is a symbolic concentration of figurative, human and spiritual meanings, which makes those who look at it, think. We tried to focus on the theology contained in the OT and NT passages that mention stars. We conclude with the following: the image of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, its figures and colors, is synthesis of what God does for us, through Jesus Christ, born of Mary. It is also synthesis of everything we must do in order to please God. Her star helps us remember that our objective is always the transcendent world, not the one below.

Francisco Perez Colunga, C.Ss.R. (Province of Mexico)

Translated from the Spanish by Mr. Miguel Valerio (Dominican Republic)

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