The Bethlehem star unveiled

The Vatican Observatory astronomer and columnist Br Guy Consolmagno SJ has a fascinating piece at the UK Jesuit e-journal Thinking Faith about the star which the Magi followed.

Is there an astronomical explanation? Consolmagno's science makes him sceptical of Matthew's account; but his theology makes him ask questions too: if this is a pious story of Jesus being recognized by wise Gentiles, why have the Magi coming from the east, and not from Rome or Athens?  And why were they astrologers, given that Jews did not approve of astrological forecasts?

Advertisement

I can only leave open the possibility that the story in Matthew is a parable with a message, but not a factual account of an actual astronomical event.

Of course, the other extreme is also possible. Maybe there was a totally miraculous star, zooming about the sky like a UFO, guiding three kings to the stable in Bethlehem.

I don’t particularly like this interpretation either, however. For one thing, it’s internally inconsistent. Why wouldn’t anyone in Jerusalem notice such a star?

And so on. It's fascinating, learned stuff.

He considers the possibility of a supernova -- spectacular, unusual lights in the sky which appear perhaps once every 400 years. Or there are "wanderers" -- planets which change their position in the sky -- which have been considered by many astronomers over the ages.

The trick, though, is to find a solution that is consistent with the temporal setting of Matthew (probably in the spring, when shepherds would be out at night tending their flocks, in a year while Herod was still alive and king); consistent with the description of the ‘star’ (something to do with its rising); consistent with an explanation of how it would indicate the birth of a king, and how Judea would be indicated as the location of this birth; and consistent with the apparent fact that only astrologers were wise to this event.

My own personal favorite solution to these constraints is in Michael Molnar’s 2000 book, The Star of Bethlehem. He argues that there was a conjunction of all the planets and the new Moon, similar to that used by Augustus to support his own royal birth, occurring in the constellation Aries (which he argues is connected with Judea), in late March of 4 BC. Most appealing, this conjunction occurred when the planets rose with the Sun in the east – hence fitting the Matthew description, while explaining why only astrologers were aware of this event. They could calculate its occurrence, but no one, not even them, would actually see these planets: they’d be hidden in the glare of the rising Sun.

It’s all quite neat. And indeed it’s rather startling to realise that such an event really did occur in the sky about the time when Jesus may well have been born. If you have a planetarium program, you can look it up for yourself.

But was this really what Matthew was talking about? There’s hardly a consensus on this point.

And that's just as well, he concludes.

Because the real message is outside the realm of astronomical calculations. The events that draw each one of us to encounter our Saviour are rooted in our own lives, our own histories, our own belief systems. Every such set of events is inherently improbable. And thus, we each have our own unique story to tell of how we wound up worshiping at the manger.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with The University of Notre Dame President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Rev. Edgar Chandler (far left), and Msgr. Robert J. Hagarty of Chicago (far right) at the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights in Chicago's Soldier Field, 1964. (The University of Notre Dame Archives)
Every individual, organization, institution and structure in the church must do something to counter the intensification of the racial divide in our country.
Edward K. BraxtonMay 24, 2018
An official wedding photo of Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, center, in Windsor Castle, Windsor, England. Others in photo from left, back row, Jasper Dyer, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Charles, Doria Ragland, Prince William; center row, Brian Mulroney, Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Charlotte, Prince George, Rylan Litt, John Mulroney; front row, Ivy Mulroney, Florence van Cutsem, Zalie Warren, Remi Litt. (Alexi Lubomirski/Kensington Palace via AP)
A poll found that 66 percent of the British public declared they were not interested in the Windsor wedding.
David StewartMay 23, 2018
God simply is a triad of love: a going out in love, a return in love and thus, ever more, love itself.
Terrance KleinMay 23, 2018
The leaders sent a letter to President Donald Trump, administration officials and members of Congress.