Oh' Holy Night
As we embrace the holiday season, I wanted to look more closely at the story of the Star of Bethlehem. It represents many things to people all over the globe. Some call it the Christmas Star, and others the North Star. I like to think of it as the guiding star with information. The scripture described it as a beacon to help those who need guidance. When I need help, I look up at the brightest light in the night sky and ask. I hope you read this post and realize someone or something is always trying to help you get to where you want to go.
As a Catholic child growing up in a suburb of Chicago, I remember the story of the three wise men who followed a star from the East to Bethlehem in search of a newborn king. As you readers know by now, I'm curious, and I wanted to see if such a star existed between 8 and 4 B.C. Was the star of Bethlehem an actual event? Put aside your religious beliefs for a moment, and review the information from a perspective of curiosity.
According to the Bible, a star rose low in the east and stopped high above Bethlehem. So, is Matthew's Old Testament prophecy concerning the birth of the Messiah correct? Or was the Star of Bethlehem an actual astronomical event?
Conjunction, What's your Function?
Let's review the information. First, there is a theory that the star was a conjunction (alignment) of planets. According to historical records, noted by Johannes Kepler in the 17th century, Jupiter and Saturn aligned in 7 B.C. and could be the astronomical origin of the Star of Bethlehem that guided the wise men. In 1604, while working in Prague, Kepler observed the tight arrangement of three planets — Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter — and a bright new star, a supernova, that would slowly fade over a year. Consequently, this occurrence inspired him to consider similar events that might have led the wise men to Bethlehem in time for Jesus Christ's birth.
A Picture is worth a 1,000 Words
As Kepler knew that Herod the Great had died in 4 BCE, he placed the birth of Christ before that date. And using his knowledge of planetary motion, he found that Jupiter and Saturn underwent a triple conjunction in 7 BCE and that the planets' conjunctions shortly followed Mars's meetings with each planet in 6 BCE with the Sun. Based on this new information, Kepler confidently suggested that the solar intersections matched the story of Christ's conception and that the wise men witnessed the birth of Jesus the following year under the Star of Bethlehem.
A second theory is that it was Halley's Comet, as featured in Giotto's famous Nativity painting in the Arena Chapel. It shows a fresco by the artist Giotto di Bondone, showing scenes from the lives of Mary and Christ. One of these, the Adoration of the Magi, is famous for the unique nature of its Christmas star.
All is not what It may Seem
The celestial object that hovers over the stable at Bethlehem is not the traditional many-pointed star with rays streaming down toward the Christ child, but a remarkably realistic comet. Its "rays," or tail, point upward into the evening sky, precisely like the tail of a real comet streaming away from the setting sun.
Giotto's use of a comet as the Christmas star was not farfetched. Comets are associated with kings' births and new dynasties' commencements. Several early Christian theologians had assumed that a comet prefigured the birth of Christ. Furthermore, in Giotto's time, the recurring nature of comets was not yet recognized, and the mysteriously beautiful object hanging low in the western sky must have seemed an adequate model for the Christmas star.
If the 7 B.C. conjunction is a sound theory, it is safe to say that a comet sighting may have been the 'star' that Matthew recorded. For instance, Chinese and Korean stargazers recorded such a tailed comet in about 5 B.C. This object was observed for over seventy days though it did not appear to move. Consequently, the people were anticipating 'a star of Jacob' to herald the birth of a new Jewish ruler, 'we saw his star when it rose' (Matthew 2:2); this comet may have fulfilled the three wise men's expectations and triggered their long journey to Jerusalem, lasting for its duration of several weeks. Contrary to popular mythology, Matthew does not say they followed the star. Instead, its appearance initiated their journey (verse 2). As a result, they first needed to go to Jerusalem to find the new king of the Jews.
The 'star' of 5 B.C. stayed brightly overhead. It did not lead the Magi to Jerusalem in any direct sense (verse 2). Nor did they need its guidance for the final leg of their journey, as Bethlehem is only six miles from Jerusalem. The star that went ahead of them (verse 9) would imply that it was towards the South and consequently remained in view as they set out from Jerusalem. Contrary to the tale, the star did not identify the exact house where the child was, only that it 'came to rest over the place.'
It is important to note that the Earth rotates on its axis from West to East. Thus, stars appear to move from East to West due to their relative motion with respect to the Earth. Having a Star move West to East or, in the case of the Wise Men's journey, the Star of Bethlehem is in the South, a comet makes more sense than a conjunction.
The Magi went to Bethlehem based on Micah's prophecy. Micah's prophecy of Jesus's birth is one of the most lucid pictures of the world's future under the reign of the Prince of Peace (5:5). The future kingdom, known as the millennial kingdom, is characterized by the presence of many nations living with one another in peace and security (4:3–4). As a result, many will come to Jerusalem to worship the reigning king, that is, Jesus Himself (4:2).
So, if we consider that the Millennial generation is anyone born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 27 to 42 in 2023), we can review their behavior. As a result, Millennial characteristics consist of people good at accepting change. Millennials have witnessed massive shifts in technologies and are technologically savvy. They are civic-oriented, conscious, global citizens, and entrepreneurial. The question is, can they (we) break free from the "old" thinking and move our species into a world of trust and mutual support? Tonight, you may want to go outside, look up at the night sky, find the brightest star you can, and ask.