A Star to Follow
By Dennis Jamison
“And they were saying, ‘Where is The King of the Judaeans who has been born?‘ For we have seen his star in The East and we have come to worship him.“ Matthew 2:2
Each year at Christmas millions of Christians in America celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, their savior. But, to many Americans, Santa Claus has seemingly become more important than Jesus Christ at Christmastime, as the spiritual values have given way to a more material reality. It is an amazing reversal of the original intent or value of the holiday. However, if Christians consider carefully, did the values of giving and helping others originate with Santa or with Jesus? Is it easier for Americans to believe in Santa Claus than to honor Jesus Christ?
Yet, while many of the traditions surrounding the Christmas holiday have given way to more material aspects of the celebration, and doubt about the historical Jesus has begun to taint the holiday for many good Christians, it remains a special time of year in which it becomes much easier to believe. Christians still find this holiday time a special, often a miraculous time, of the year despite the world around them.
One of the miracles at the intersection of faith and reality is the Christmas Star. Many theories exist regarding the Star of Bethlehem; yet it still captivates the attention of many believers and non-believers. And, despite the disbelief of the non-religious, astronomers have calculated how such an event might have occurred. The possibilities provide a real framework of logic to what many skeptics have debunked in recent times.
To Christians, the Christmas Star, or the Star of Bethlehem, is a most significant part of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. The light from the star served as an ancient navigational guidance system – a GPS – for the Magi. The star guided these most prestigious guests to where they would meet the most prestigious infant. Without the star, would such a meeting have been possible?
An Historical Star Event
The book of Numbers in the Old Testament foretold the coming of a star that would precede the arrival of a great leader of the people of Israel. The prophecy was also revealed by Balaam, an ancient prophet of Mesopatamia. The prophecy was also mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Some accounts of the Magi’s journey credit them as studying celestial bodies from the ancient Institute of Astrology at Sippar near Babylonia. Many ancient peoples kept astronomical records; especially the Chinese were adept at cataloging celestial phenomena. Such historical records of unusual celestial events provide evidence that verify current astronomical data and provide more understanding about the Christmas Star.
Scientific Possibilities of the Star
To follow the star, the Magi would have had to see it stand out from a background of stars in the night sky. It also would have to have been visible for at least the duration of the Magi’s journey or approximately six to eight weeks.
Astronomers have ruled out ordinary stars as well as meteors and comets. While providing spectacular light shows, meteors do not last long, and do not behave the way the Wise Men’s star behaved. Comets provide a show moving across the night sky, but historical records reveal sightings of only two comets, both appearing many years before Jesus’ birth.
Also ruled out are novae (brightening stars) or supernovae because no historical records indicate such occurrences at the time. However, in considering the possibility of planets or groupings of planets called conjunctions, astronomers have come closer to identifying significant astronomical events that fit with the the Bible story.
Conjunctions of Planets
Historical records and contemporary computer simulations like those of Australian astronomer, Dave Reneke, have identified an unprecedented series of planetary conjunctions during the years of 3 B.C and 2 B.C. Reneke’s sky-mapping software program simulated planetary movements of 2,000 years ago.
From August 1st in 3 B.C., Jupiter rose in the eastern sky at sunrise; and, after twelve days, Venus and Jupiter stood very close together in the rays of the morning sun. On September 14th, and in 2 B.C., on February 17th and May 8th, Jupiter stood very close to Regulus, one of the brightest stars in our solar system.
An Unusual “Star”
However, the most dramatic event was when the two brightest planets, Jupiter and Venus, appeared to collide on June 17th in 2 B.C. Coming so close together, they would have appeared as one spectacular light in the night sky.
Then, on August 27th, there was a grand conjunction of planets with Jupiter and Mars very close together and Venus and Mercury being very close in the eastern sky at dawn. Later, Jupiter moved westward. The Magi followed. After six weeks, they would have seen Jupiter in the pre-dawn sky on the Meridian due south of Jerusalem appearing directly over Bethlehem just above the southern horizon. Reaching its farthest western point in its orbit around the sun, it would have appeared to stop and stay above Bethlehem in continuing its orbit around the other side of the sun.
It should be noted that 2,000 years ago, to people on earth anything in the night sky was deemed a star, it it was not referred to as the moon. There was no study of astronomy as we know it today, and no telescopes had been invented in the ancient period. However, science today can be utilized to look into the past in many ways, and the contemporary astronomers are able to view such very dramatic events as capable of fitting the biblical account in Matthew.
The Faith to Follow the Star
It should be further noted, however, that 2,000 years ago, there were a certain special religious people who utilized prophecies of their day to have faith in a celestial event that would launch a journey of great distance over difficult terrain to bring precious gifts to an infant born in foreign land. The basics behind the journey of faith is no less significant than the reality of the celestial event that developed in the heavens for the navigation needed to know where to go to find the infant king.
The biblical account in Matthew, however, is not only a story of what was; it is also a story of what can be. It is a story for Christians in this day as well. If Santa has become more important than Jesus, what star – what light – are Christians following along their paths? Do Christians today have faith, such as the Magi, that it is important to follow the light to find Christ? Has the journey of American Christians just begun, or have we lost track of the light of the star?
Do we have such deep faith that the light we follow along our shadowed paths will lead us to Christ? And, what then? If we encounter Christ along our paths, like Saul when he was temporarily blinded by such light on his path, does our faith begin to ignite within us? Is it possible our faith can ignite and shine forth, as light for others? Will others see the light of our faith burning brightly as a star to guide them?
“Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Matthew 5:15-16.