(Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly) Christmas, despite what the calendar says, isn’t over. And the star–“star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright”–that shone over Bethlehem won’t go dim until it gets its proper due on Epiphany on Sunday.
As told in the Gospel of Matthew, a star marked the birth of Jesus and led wise men, or Magi, from the East to present the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Their arrival in Bethlehem is celebrated by Western Christians on Epiphany, or the 12th Day of Christmas.
For centuries, the star has intrigued astronomers, historians, artists and theologians alike: was it a one-time miracle, a literary myth, or was it an actual astronomical occurrence?
“It’s a fascinating concept,” Ronald Kaitchuck, an astronomer who teaches and directs the planetarium at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., told Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly. “It’s a fascinating question as to whether this is real.”
For the last 40 years, Ball State has presented a popular Christmas show offering possible explanations for the star of Bethlehem. Observatories across the country offer similar programs.
Many traditions have arisen about the Magi, but the only biblical account is found in the 12 verses that open the second chapter of Matthew. And that doesn’t even say how many Magi there were. Most scholars now believe they were court astrologers from Persia or southern Arabia.
Finding the star hinges on timing.
The birth date of Jesus is not known. According to Matthew, Herod, the king of Judea, was still alive. Scholars disagree about whether Herod died in 4 B.C. or 1 B.C.
Modern scientific discoveries and powerful, high-speed computers allow people today to calculate what the skies looked like at any given point in history. One such series of events, which could account for the star, occurred beginning in 6 B.C.
“Three of the major planets appeared fairly close together in the same part of the sky,” Kaitchuck said. “That would be Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. And then, just a year later, we know from Chinese records, there was a nova, an exploding star.”
Despite years of studying the possibilities, Kaitchuck says he hasn’t reached a conclusion about what the star might have been.
“You see lots of lots of things that are all like maybes,” he said. “Very definite maybes.”
In College Station, Texas, law professor Rick Larson believes he may have identified the star. He is making presentations about his theory around the world and has just released a DVD about it.
An evangelical Protestant, Larson began his star quest several years ago after he and his daughter made some Wise Men decorations for their front yard.
“When we were done putting those up, Marion, who was probably 8 at the time, says, `Daddy, make a star.’ And so I was hit with this question. `Yeah, I’ll make a star, but what was the star?”‘
Larson looked for clues in Matthew’s account. He came up with nine data points.
“When the Magi arrived from the East, perhaps traveling from Persia or perhaps Babylon, they asked a question, and it’s loaded,” Larson said. “They say, `Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?’ Now something they’d seen in the sky suggested to them a connection with birth, kings and the Jewish nation.
“And they saw the star when they arrived in Jerusalem,” he said. “So it endures over time. So that’s another clue because most celestial events endure over time, but not all do.”
Larson bought an astronomy computer program and started searching calculations of what the ancient skies looked like. And he considered the meanings that constellations and planets had to people in that time. Jupiter, he said, was the king planet and Venus the mother planet. In June of 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus came together in an extremely rare conjunction — close enough, Larson said, to get the Magi’s attention.
He says other astronomical events are laden with religious symbolism, including a vision recorded in the Book of Revelation that might refer to Jesus’ conception and a lunar eclipse at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.
For Larson, the Bethlehem star “is just the beginning of a celestial poem that ends at Christ’s death at the crucifixion.” Seeing that poem, Larson said, has strengthened his faith and revealed a new side of God.
“To see that he would write in the sky, from before time, celestial poetry to announce the coming and passing of our Messiah took me to a different place,” he said. “To a place where I could see beauty in our Creator that I hadn’t known.”
But some Christians worry that trying to explain the star could detract from the Christmas story.
“I would really hate for the focus on uncovering what this was historically or scientifically or astronomically to eclipse the fact that this is a star of wonder,” said author Frederica Mathewes-Green. “The star that’s at the center of that part of the story is such an object of wonder because we don’t understand what it is.”
An Eastern Orthodox Christian, Mathewes-Green says the star may be ultimately unexplainable, just like the Christian belief that Jesus was God in human flesh.
“I think that’s one of the things that the star speaks to us, that in its brilliance, its luminosity, its elevated qualities–but yet participating in this very same universe that we’re in — that it shows the depth of the story and, just as it led the wise men, it leads us as well, deeper and deeper into the mystery.”