Few would disagree that COVID-2020 has been a year like no other in any of our lifetimes. We could all certainly use a little extra Christmas cheer this season. How about a modern Star of Bethlehem made by a historic dance of planets in the night sky of God’s stunning cosmos?
That is precisely what the folks at Astronomy.com are saying the whole world will be treated to this year when “Jupiter and Saturn will form rare ‘Christmas Star’” on December 21. This will be a dramatically historic astronomical occurrence when our solar system’s two uncontested giants, Jupiter with its 79 moons(!) and hula-hooping Saturn, come so close to one another that they will nearly appear as one magnificent “star” in the Yuletide sky.
The last time humans got to see this wonderment was “just before dawn on March 4, 1226” explains Professor Patrick Hartigan, a leading astronomer at Rice University. That was in Galileo’s lifetime. This alignment has happened more recently, but it has not been seen by human eyes since the Middle Ages due to timing and the Sun’s daylight.
“That’s just shy of 800 years ago,” adds Amy Oliver of the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, describing these two celestial giants “like teenagers at a high school dance: They’re getting closer and closer together … and now they’re going to have a close slow dance.” As a scientist, she recognizes the wonder of this event, particularly in this trying year. It’s like “a unique holiday gift to the world” Oliver says, adding “maybe it’s the soothing band-aid for 2020.”
Looking like a double planet, the two will appear separated by only 1/5th the diameter of the full Moon or just 0.06º apart even though they will be 456 million miles apart in actuality. Everyone will have to wait until 2080 to see this again, and if you miss that, you will have to stick around until 2400 to catch it again. So this is indeed a very special, historic treat.
Is This the Star of Bethlehem?
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
So what did they see? Some have speculated they were attracted by a mighty comet or a glorious nova or supernova which is actually a dying star brilliantly flaming out. This is what the great Johannes Kepler believed. Or it could have simply been the rare alignment of bright, massive planets converging to appear like a star like we are about to see. Or, of course it could have simply been a super, extra-natural miracle orchestrated by God to mark the birth of His Son. Serious astronomers contend it was likely some sort of actual, historical astronomical phenomenon.
One of the best secular academic books on the subject is Michael R. Molnar’s The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi published by Rutgers University Press in 2000. Professor Molnar tells his reader his book presents “new evidence in favor of a historical basis to the star mentioned in Matthew,” explaining,
“There was indeed a great celestial portent during Herod’s reign, a portent that signified the birth of a great king of Judea and is in excellent agreement with the biblical account.”
Molnar, who taught astronomy at Rutgers for years, holds that what the Wise Men likely saw and were clearly attracted to was Jupiter, considered to be the “royal star,” aligning with Saturn and the earth’s moon. He believes God used this interstellar dance of these planets to send the message to the Wise Men and the world that a new king was indeed coming.
But there is another theory put forth more recently by a deeply serious Christian scholar. It is presented in Colin R. Nicholl’s The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem (Crossway, 2015). Nicoll, who is not an astronomer but a Biblical scholar who earned his Ph.D. from Cambridge, holds that the star of Bethlehem was not planets or stars but actually a comet and his case enjoys considerable scientific support. As Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, assistant professor of astronomy at Ball State University, explains in his review of The Great Christ Comet over at The Gospel Coalition,
“Only a comet, he argues, can do all the things the Star is reported to have done in the nativity texts—leading the Magi to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem, then to the specific house in which the Christ child lay.”
Gonzales largely agrees with Nicholl, explaining his case is a deeply “sophisticated one that may be the most plausible offered to date.”
The Heavens Declare God’s Glory
Christians who consider their founding day as Christmas, are people of two books. Of course, the book of Scripture and the book of God’s revelation in nature. As Psalm 19:1-4 tells us,
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
Regardless of whether this slow dance of Jupiter and Saturn we will all observe on December 21 is the historic reenactment of that “star of wonder, star of night / Star with royal beauty bright” we sing of, we do know from scripture that this very rare and historic event is indeed a great wonder of God’s handiwork, reminding us that He is indeed at work, in control and very much with us. And that is a wonderful gift indeed in such a difficult year.
- NASA explains how best to the view The Great Conjunction for yourself on December 21. Or you can watch it warm at home at their site here.