The Mystery of the Star of Bethlehem

For more than two millennia, the Star of Bethlehem, which guided the Magi to the city where Jesus was born, has been rousing the curiosity of researchers worldwide.

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By Solène Tadié/National Catholic Register

The Star of Bethlehem, mentioned in St. Matthew’s Gospel, is one of the main symbols associated with Jesus’ birth, embodying the light of hope of salvation in the midst of darkness. But beyond its symbolism, this star is also an exhaustible subject of debate as a scientific phenomenon.

Was it a historical event or only a pious fiction invented by St. Matthew? And if it was a historical event, how can we scientifically explain the occurrence of this exceptional astronomical event? Such questions have given rise to many different interpretations over the centuries.

Moreover, as it is difficult to determine with certainty the exact year of the Nativity, a scientific explanation of the phenomenon would also be a potential time marker to help pinpoint the date of Christ’s birth.

According to a calculation by German astronomer Johannes Kepler in the 16th century, an extremely rare conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn occurred three times in the constellation Pisces in 7 B.C., appearing to observers as a single luminous star. This would coincide with St. Matthew’s description of the celestial body appearing, disappearing and then reappearing to the Magi. A century earlier, Portuguese Rabbi Isaac Abravanel had already claimed that this specific kind of conjunction triggered the birth of the Messiah.   

This theory gained more credibility in 1925, when German orientalist Paul Schnabel deciphered ancient cuneiform tablets from the astronomical school of the Babylonian city of Sippar, which described the exact same astronomical conjunction in 7 B.C.

“This is a good theory,” Father Giulio Maspero, a physicist and theologian at the pontifical University of the Holy Cross, told EWTN, mentioning other plausible scientific explanations, including the possibility of a comet.

“Another theory, which may be shocking for us, is that the star was an angel. So, no astronomy here, but just a spiritual light that accompanies the Three Wise Men along their path,” he said. Father Maspero says this explanation is “coherent with the whole narrative,” as Bethlehem was filled with angels who were “proclaiming the glory of Jesus and announcing to the shepherds what was happening there”.

There is also the possibility of an appearance of a nova or the explosion of a supernova around 5 B.C., as suggested by several Chinese and Korean astronomer’s chronicles, but this has never been definitively determined.

The Spiritual Strength of Mystery

For Brother Guy Consolmagno, astronomer and director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory, the importance of the shining Star of the Holy Night lies above all in the fact that it shows that the physical universe can be used to get closer to God.

“We don’t know whether Matthew was intending this to be a pious story to show that Christ was even more significant than Augustus, who had used astrology to say that he had to be an emperor, or if he was describing a real star or a real astronomical event, or if it was something totally miraculous and we will never know until we can interview St. Mathew himself and find out!” he said.

But if there is no definitive scientific conclusion regarding the nature of the Star, the mystery surrounding this story makes it even more powerful for Christians.

“We have to read the symbols, we need to look at the narrative, otherwise we cannot catch the true meaning of what God is saying to us,” Father Maspero said, adding that everything in the Gospel is a mystery.

And the universality of redemption and assurance that God always answers those who seek him is the central meaning of the Christmas Star — a symbol that shouldn’t be distorted by an excess of scientism.

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!