Exploring the ‘Christmas Star’ phenomenon on Dec. 21 – and how to spot it

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

Amidst the unique Christmas we will be experiencing this 2020, the astronomical event that will unfold on Dec. 21 appears like a gift of hope. In what many are calling the “Star of Bethlehem” or the “Christmas Star,” Jupiter and Saturn will appear in the night sky very close to each other.  

Regardless of the response, this event is certainly something that shouldn’t be missed. But is it really something like the “Star of Bethlehem”?  

Let’s explore what is really going on scientifically.  

Ed Ladner, President of the Denver Astronomical Society, explained the uniqueness of this phenomenon, which is called a “Great Conjunction.” 

“The planets orbiting our sun don’t all have the same plane,” he said. “As a result, Jupiter is about 1.3 degrees above/below our Earth’s orbit. Additionally, Saturn is about 2.5 degrees above/below ours.   

“Couple this with Jupiter orbiting the sun faster than Saturn (11.8 earth years, vs. Saturn’s 29.4 earth years), and we have a harmonic that causes both planets to be seen in the same general direction every 20 years or so.” 

This year, however, both planets will come much closer than usual – although they will not overlap. 

“In this case, Jupiter and Saturn will appear about 1/10th of a degree apart. Visually, this is about 1/5th the diameter of a full moon. While Jupiter and Saturn will still remain visually separated, they will be quite close,” he said. 

This is different from a “Mutual Conjunction,” he explained, when two objects actually appear to overlap. Ladner estimates a “Mutual Conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn happened around 8,000 years go. 

March 1226 was the last time a “Great Conjunction” was visible from earth. While it also happened in July 1623, this conjunction was too close to the sun to be seen by the human eye, he added. 

But the golden question remains: Is it right to call it the “Star of Bethlehem”? 

Technically speaking, the “Bethlehem star” was not a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, as around the year 1 AD, these planets were more than 90 degrees apart, Ladner explained. 

On Dec. 21, Saturn and Jupiter will appear extremely close in the night sky in an astronomical phenomenon known as a Great Conjunction. Some are calling it the “Christmas Star” this year due to its occurrence in close proximity to Christmas day. (Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary on Unsplash)

Moreover, given that the planets most likely won’t look like a single star (unless you have really bad eyesight or the atmospheric conditions in your area distort your view), it could be misleading to refer to it as such. 

A person with good eyesight “can resolve stars about 1/60th to 1/15th degree apart,” and Jupiter and Saturn will be further apart than that on Dec. 21. 

That being said, this “Great Conjunction” is being called the “Christmas Star” or the “Star of Bethlehem” due to its proximity to Christmas Day and nothing else. 

Either way, what experts agree on is that it will be a beautiful phenomenon to see. 

Make sure you don’t miss it 

Ladner said that the “Great Conjunction” on Dec. 21 will be visible “low in the horizon at sunset.” 

“Start looking just after sunset towards the South West. Jupiter and Saturn will be about 20 degrees above the horizon on the 21st and will be behind our mountains within 60 to 90 minutes, depending upon your location,” he explained. “For viewing, find a location with a view of the horizon to the South West.”  

He added that the stars are bright enough to be visible from the Denver Metro area “if you are away from local lights.” 

“I recommend looking at Jupiter and Saturn for the nights leading up to the conjunction,” he concluded. “Watch as they slowly approach each other in your field of view over the nights.  The best tool for viewing these will be a pair of binoculars or a small telescope with a low power eyepiece.” 

The “Great Conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn may not necessarily be equivalent to the star of Bethlehem. Nonetheless, it provides an opportunity for us to marvel at God’s creation and the beauty and order with which he created all things. 

Gazing at the stars “often and for quite a long time” was St. Ignatius of Loyola’s greatest consolation during his first days of conversion, as he patiently waited to recover from his injured leg. He felt a great impulse to serve God whenever he gazed at them. May we let ourselves, too, be inspired by God’s beauty in creation as we look up at the sky. 

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!