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

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: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.