I stepped outside the other evening and took a look in the direction of the southwestern sky. Low on the horizon were two planets, Jupiter and Saturn. I used my fingers to measure the distance between them, and the space between them was less than the width of my little finger.
In the days to come, they’ll get closer till, on the 21st of December, they’ll be almost on top of one another, forming a single star to the unaided eye. If you point a telescope towards the object, you’ll see Jupiter with its retinue of moons, and ringed Saturn will be in the same field of view.
We call these conjunctions, or that point in their orbits when planets seem to line up in roughly the same plane. While they’re not exactly rare, they are spectacular.
Considering the 21st is close to Christmas day, my thoughts turned, of course, to the Christmas Star.
The Bible mentions several astronomical events, but none are more scratch your head and make you wonder than the Christmas Star. Over the centuries, speculation has run rampant about what it could be. That speculation has covered everything from supernovas, planetary alignments, comets, hallucinations, UFOs, and simple miracles.
Let’s look at some of these.
– The term applies to a star that suddenly appears in the sky where none was before. Of course, there was a star there; we couldn’t see it. While not exactly a rare thing in our galaxy, a supernova is a star that has reached the end of its lifespan. It’s run out of fuel, and when it attempts to fuse iron, it explodes. It releases so much energy that it can outshine the entire galaxy and be visible in the daylight sky.
Novas are relatively common, and while they might not be as bright as a supernova, they still stand out to seasoned star watchers.
Could either one of these be the Christmas Star?
Unlikely. When a star goes supernova, it leaves a tiny, incredibly dense object called a neutron star behind. We find them because, as the spin, they give off pulses of radio waves. We’ve mapped hundreds of these and are confident of distances. All we’d need to do is look for this interstellar corpse, figure out when the star exploded (we can do that, again with simple math) and when the light reached Earth. So far, there are no candidates.
A nova is a different mechanism. There’s a variety of different kinds of novas, but again, there’s nothing seen or known of that would be a good candidate.
Comets could be a good bet. Ever since the Italian artist Giotto painted a picture of Halley’s Comet over the manger, it’s had people thinking.
Comets are the leftovers from creation. They’ve been described as dirty snowballs, and that isn’t far from the truth. They’re ice mixed with a few bits of rock. They live far out and away from the Sun, but rather often, something causes one of these dirty snowballs to start falling towards the Sun. Maybe it was a simple gravitational tug or a collision, but here it comes. It might take thousands of years, but come it does. As the comet comes close to the Sun, the ice begins to melt and turn into a gas. The sunlight and Solar Winds catch this gas and push it away from the comet to create what we call the tail. If the comet is big enough and close enough, it can be very spectacular.
Halley’s Comet isn’t a bad candidate since it passed very near Earth around 12 BC. Even accounting for some 3-5 years error on the year of Christ’s birth, it falls just outside the accepted range of Christ’s birth. There are old records of several bright comets in that time frame, however.
We’re told that there were several Wisemen who saw the star. Traditionally, we think of three, though the Bible says Wisemen. It doesn’t give us a number, but it’s clear there were more than one. Two or more people hallucinating a star probably isn’t going to happen.
Where were these men from? Most likely Persia, the area of modern-day Iraq and Iran. These guys were the closest thing we had at the time for modern-day astronomers. They watched the skies, not so much like we do today, but looking for omens. Rest assured; they knew every square inch of the heavens.
So if one saw a star, he’d get hold of one of his buddies and ask, “Do you see what I see?”
We do the same thing today. If I think I found a comet, I’d notify the CBAT
. They’d put out the notification, someone else would swing a telescope around to the designated location and say, “Oh, yes. Rich found himself a comet,” or “Nay, he discovered the Crab Nebula. . . Again!”
The Wisemen would have confirmed the sighting before traveling across a fair chunk of the known world. Such an expedition wasn’t one to be entered into lightly. It would have been expensive and dangerous. The caravan that made the trip would have been a large one, complete with goods, foodstuffs, soldiers to protect them, and possibly their own families.
You don’t gamble on a hallucination.
Small problem here. I don’t believe in UFOs, or at least as most people think of them. Mention the term UFO (Unidentified Flying Object), and the first thing most people think of is a spaceship from another world. Most people forget that traveling to the stars in any reasonable amount of time (say within the crew’s lifetime) would take a tremendous amount of power to do so. And while it’s most certainly beyond our technology to even go to the nearest star, some folks assume it’s child’s play for an advanced civilization. The problem is, there’s no evidence of intelligence beyond our Earth (there’s times I wonder if there’s any here).
Now, here’s where I get bridled when people suggest it. It’s always followed by this spaceship brought Jesus to Earth.
As Captain James T. Kirk observed in the movie, The Final Frontier, “What does God need with a Star Ship?”
. Short of invoking and out and out miracle, this is the most promising. During the accepted time frame of the birth of Christ, there was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Venus, and the star Regulus. These are all bright objects in the sky, and they converged almost into a single point of light.
Now, remember, the Wisemen were the Astronomers of the day. It’s better to call them what they were, and that’s Astrologers. They knew the meanings of stars and planets.
I don’t believe in astrology either, but the point is it doesn’t matter what I believe. What matters is what they believed because it launched them on a mission across the world to find a King.
To the Wisemen, Jupiter was the king of the planets. But, the Hebrews called Jupiter “Sedeq,” which means righteousness.
Regulus, in several cultures, has always been associated with royalty. The name “Regulus” means “Prince” or the “Little Prince.” Regulus is also in the constellation of Leo the Lion, which is associated with Israel.
Last but not least is Venus. Venus is associated with many things, but it’s associated with Love.
When all this came together, it was a simple exercise for the Wisemen to read the signs. They put it together as the birth announcement of the “King of Kings.”
Now there’s a reason to launch a massive expedition.
. We can’t discount that. I know about miracles, and it could have been one just for them.
But at the end of the day, what the star was is irrelevant. What matters is the answer to the question of what Jesus means to you.
But two thousand plus years ago, a team of Wisemen knew what He meant. It was as if God had sent them an invite to seek Him out.
And they set out to find Him.