In Matthew 2:1, we read the following: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, Magi came from the East to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him’.”
This passage has been the object of a great deal of research, speculation, and conjecture, particularly about the “star.” Origen assumed that the star was a comet. Johannes Kepler believed that it was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Theorists whose names are less known surmised it to be a meteor, a supernova, or an ephemeral star. Some thought the star was miraculous; others, thought it to be a metaphor. Ferdinand Prat, S.J., whose splendidly researched Life of Christ, published in 1950, states that “We know nothing of the star except what the Gospel tells us.” He cites Bossuet, a 17th century scholar to offer his readers some consolation: “ …after all, what difference does it make? Is it not enough to know that they [the Magi] came from a land of ignorance, from the midst of the Gentiles, where God was not known, nor the Christ promised and expected?” Curiosity, nonetheless, even about obscure facts, is sometimes irrepressible. Then, again, maybe the real nature of the “star” does make a difference.
Astronomers, knowing that it is possible to track the movements of celestial bodies back through eons of time have responded to the challenge. In the 1970s, Professor David Hughes, an astronomer from the University of Sheffield, in England, published a review of the various theories about the Star of Bethlehem. His best scientific explanation of the Star that led the Magi to the Christ child is an astronomical phenomenon known as a “triple conjunction.” This cosmic event takes place between the planets Jupiter and Saturn, when the two planets come close together in the sky three separate times during a relatively short period of time. A triple conjunction of this sort occurs, according to Tim O’Brien, associate director of Jodrell Bank Observatory in Chesire, about once every 900 years. It involves an alignment between the Sun, Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn. Surely, this is a most unusual event, and would have aroused the interest of attentive astronomers and astrologers of antiquity.
According to many scholars, Jesus was born around 7 B.C. That year, the heavens offered a display that few who studied the stars would have failed to notice. Three times during this year there was a conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn. Sky-watchers of that time regarded Jupiter as a royal star and a fortuitous one. Saturn was believed to involve the destiny of the Jews. Perhaps even more significant, this conjunction occurred in the constellation of Pisces, one that foretold incidents of great importance to Israel.
A felicitous conjunction also occurs between astronomers and Biblical scholars who share the belief that the first of the three conjunctions may have inspired the Magi to commence their long trek to Israel. The second conjunction may have helped guide them on their journey, while the third conjunction led them to their destination in Bethlehem. Faith seeks reason and reason can strengthen faith. There is no reason to believe that faith and science are on separate tracks.
Yet even as a symbol, the Star of Bethlehem has great importance. “It is not difficult to understand why a star was chosen as a symbol to mark the birth of Christ,” says Astrophysicist Jesse Greenstein of the California Institute of Technology. “Stars are more mysterious and remote than moon or sun gods. At the time of Christ, people all over the world considered them important.” It is also interesting to note that December 25 was chosen to honor the birth of Christ. On that date pagans had celebrated Solis invictus (The Unconquered Sun). One star heralds the passing of a previous star.
In another sense, stars, so far away from us in terms of geometric distance, are closer to us than many of us realize. Stars burn and die out. During that process, they produce particles that are scattered throughout the heavens. The earth and its star—the sun—are built up from the ashes of dead stars. In a very literal sense, therefore, we, and all living forms on earth, are star children. Stars encompass the entire universe. It is a small wonder, then, that stars have always elicited wonder.
The image above is a detail taken from “Adoration of the Magi” by Domenico Ghirlandaio painted in 1488.