Looking at the night sky has always made us wonder deeply about our human life and destiny. Noticing change in the night sky makes us ponder change, not afar, but down here on the earth.
Sometimes nighttime change signals fear, like the appearance of comets. Other times change prompts wonder at what joyous things might be possible. Cue the magi, traveling from ancient Persia, taking months to reach Bethlehem. They were both motivated and guided by the light of a star. We ponder these mysteries on Sunday, the day of Epiphany and the first Sunday in 2019.
Scientists have chimed in with Biblical scholars and theologians not about what that Bethlehem star meant, but what astronomical phenomenon did those magi actually see? Fred Grosse, a professor of physics and astronomy at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA says as much.
“Astronomical objects or events which would be of interest to serious stargazers of the time include comets and meteors, nova or supernova, and auroras,” Dr. Grosse explains. But the favorite candidate hypothesis for the star of Bethlehem, he explains, is a planetary conjunction.
A conjunction occurs as two celestial objects appear to pass very near to each other from our perspective on Earth. Often, conjunctions look like one large object rather than separate ones.
“In 6 BCE, Jupiter and Saturn passed each other three times, in May, September, and December – a triple conjunction,” Grosse says. Since the actual year of Jesus’ birth is tough to pin down, an event in 6 BCE remains a good candidate to explain what the Magi saw.” That could explain the magi seeing themselves as following a star, over the several months of their exhausting trip.
“Because this conjunction only happens once every 140 years, it would have been a significant event to astrologers from Babylon. A conjecture is that they saw the first passing from their homes, left for Jerusalem, and got there in time for the second or third passing to guide them to Bethlehem,” he says. “(Astronomer Johannes) Kepler knew of this conjunction, and since his time astronomers have connected the triple conjunction with the Star of Bethlehem.” So this rare blend of science and religion around the colorful Christmas cast is anything but new today.
Of course, any scientific explanation of the Magi star doesn’t mean that the event loses its transcendent meaning. “The symbolism is apparent. A small clear light, on a cold dark night, in a sometimes cold and dark world, leads the wise to the message of Jesus. The message tells us to love each passenger who journeys with us on this small, fragile, planet Earth,” claims Grosse. Amen.