A Star! A Star! Shining in the night! It will bring us goodness and light!
Tonight, I will give a presentation for the Women of the Church (W-ELCA, if you’re Lutheran) on the Star of Bethlehem. The Star that led the three wise men (more on that later) to find the baby Jesus in the manger, where the three kings from the Orient gave him their gifts of frankincense and myrrh.
Well, sort of. I had such a good time researching it (I tweeted about it and added the hashtag #biblenerd), mostly because it’s the kind of thing that people THINK pastors know about, but we don’t, not any more than anybody else. Seminary would have to be about ten years longer to get into everything in the Bible, so mostly we get an overview and learn the tools we need to get deeper into things like this later.
Anyway, I found out that there were two components of this story that are much misunderstood. I’ll write about one today (the star), and one tomorrow (the magi).
The Star is only found in one gospel, Matthew. It appears “from the east” and appears to set, and stop over Jesus’ birthplace. Since recorded history, there have been several attempts to figure out what exactly the star was and when it appeared. I’ll sum it up. The star was thought of at first to be a comet, even Halley’s comet, until someone realized that the recorded comets were either too late or too early to be within the range of Jesus’ birth year (which is NOT zero, but 4-6 BC based on King Herod’s death, widely recorded by non-religious historians of the time). They also, obviously, do not stop.
Supernovae have been proposed as an answer, but from what we know now, they would be too far away and quickly exploding to be seen in the night sky for any length of time.
The answer that makes the most sense is a conjunction of planets (and a star) over the year 7-6 B.C. It’s hard to parse together all the information because some of it is more hopeful than accurate (which I can respect!), but from what I can gather, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars came together near Regulus, the royal star, in the sign of Pisces, the astrological sign of the house of Israel. If the Magi were watching such things, this event (which did happen, according to modern instruments) would have been very significant. Even more significantly, Jupiter would have gone into retrograde, and appeared to “stop” over Bethlehem. It sounds pretty promising, if you think about it!
But really, I don’t think we’ll ever know what actually took place celestially that night. Does it matter to me, as a person of faith, to know what EXACTLY happened? Not really. It’s interesting and curious to think about it all, but what is important is that a bunch of unlikely people found their way to a backwater town in Jerusalem, to visit a middle-class baby boy who was rumored by the stars to be the savior of the world, the Messiah.
Their unlikeliness, I’ll discuss tomorrow, but I’ll just say this….neither three, nor wise, nor kings.