The Christmas Star – Facts, Fiction, and Faith

by on December 17, 2020

Perspective matters. The personal significance of what we observe has everything to do with how we observe it. If you happen to be outside in the early evening on Monday, December 21, you will notice a remarkably bright spot of light in the southwestern sky—brighter than any natural phenomenon you have likely seen in the sky other than the sun and moon. Depending on the atmospheric conditions and how good your eyesight is, you will either see that it comprises two bright points of light, extremely close together, or else that it appears as one fuzzy blob. Those are the data, upon which all careful observers can agree. Now let’s add some perspective.

If you’re someone who rarely notices the night sky, but you do happen to glance up on the evening of the 21st, the bright light will suddenly grab your attention and you will likely conclude that something is not normal.

If you’re outdoors pretty regularly, then you will have been noticing for the past several weeks that two of the brightest “stars” in the sky have been drawing closer each night, with one poised to overtake the other within a few days. While you can appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of what will transpire on December 21, its occurrence will not take you by surprise.

Finally, if you’re an avid astronomy buff, then you know that on December 21 the planets Jupiter and Saturn will reach their point of closest approach to each other (known as a “conjunction”) as they orbit around the sun. From our vantage point on Earth, they will appear to be on a collision course when projected on the night sky, even though they will remain nearly half a billion miles apart. And while this event will be noteworthy, you will know that it is hardly unprecedented and has actually been expected.

Jupiter and Saturn achieve conjunction roughly once every twenty years, but their alignment as viewed from Earth does not always appear in the evening sky. Sometimes it is washed out by daylight. Furthermore, the degree of observed separation between the planets varies slightly from one conjunction to another. What makes the event this week so special is that the planets can be clearly viewed in the evening sky with an extremely small degree of separation (about one-fifth of the diameter of a full moon). Between the years 0 and 3000 A.D. this happens only 7 times. The last such occurrence was March 4, 1226 A.D. But it will happen again in a mere 60 years! It’s just a matter of the basic physics of orbiting bodies. Furthermore, if you are struck by the fact that this conjunction is occurring on the very day of the winter solstice, that is also just a coincidence of the physics. Conjunctions can be observed at various times throughout the year.

Many have tried to attribute various degrees of fateful significance to the conjunctions of the planets. It has even been suggested that a conjunction may have accounted for the Star of Bethlehem reported in Matthew’s gospel. But neither the dating nor the appearance of the conjunctions that occurred near the time of Jesus’ birth seem to work. There were conjunctions in 7 B.C. and 14 A.D., and in each of those cases the separation between Jupiter and Saturn was large enough for the naked eye to clearly distinguish two separate light sources, rather than one bright “star”. Furthermore, conjunctions do not suddenly appear unexpectedly. They result from the planets’ visible trajectories moving across the sky for several weeks, slowly converging and then moving apart. The conjunction itself does not “travel” since the planets are only aligned for a short time. This does not match the behavior of the star described by Matthew, which suddenly appeared and seemingly moved in advance of the Magi.

Even though it might not be a herald of the Second Coming, the conjunction of 2020 points to a profound truth of the spiritual life. The heavens constantly proclaim the glory of God (Psalm 19) whether conjunctions are happening or not. God’s grace, like the planets, is always present to us, whether we choose to receive it or not. And sadly, the cries of the poor are always resounding in our ears, whether we choose to hear them and respond or not.

As people of faith we are called to be more than absent-minded observers, suddenly noticing or yearning for God’s presence when a seemingly extraordinary event erupts into our everyday consciousness (whether a sudden joy or tragedy). By paying attention to the broad movements of societal concerns or even the interior movements of our hearts over time, we can grow to anticipate and even seek out opportunities for encountering Christ in our midst and reacting to those encounters in a manner that allows us to receive—and share—his love for us.

Christians have a set of truths upon which we can rest every bit as confidently as astronomers rest on the laws of physics. The omnipresence of a Trinitarian God who is love and in whose image every person is made gives context, perspective, and meaning to any situation we will ever encounter. Our humanity draws us into a host of “conjunctions” every day of our lives. May we be as awe-struck by these human close encounters as by the alignment of two giant spheres of gas and dust.

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