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: ‘I have seen the Lord’: St. Vincent de Paul’s new adoration chapel honors St. Mary Magdelene’s witness

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“I have seen the Lord.” (John 20:18). 

One couple from St. Vincent de Paul parish took these words to heart with urgency last year during the pandemic and decided to build a Eucharistic Adoration chapel for their fellow faithful to be in the Lord’s presence themselves. 

Mike and Shari Sullivan donated design and construction of the new Eucharistic Adoration Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene adjacent to their parish church to make a space for prayer and adoration that they felt needed to be reinstated, especially during the difficult days of COVID-19. 

The chapel was completed this spring and dedicated during Divine Mercy weekend with a special blessing from Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila. 

“It was invigorating to have the archbishop bless the chapel,” Mike said. “The church has been buzzing.” 

Mike has been a Catholic and a member of St. Vincent de Paul since his baptism, which he jokes was around the time the cornerstone was placed in 1951. The Sullivans’ five children all attended the attached school and had their sacraments completed at St. Vincent de Paul too. 

Archbishop Samuel Aquila dedicated the St. Mary Magdalene adoration chapel with a prayer and blessing at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church on April 9, 2021, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

The 26-by 40-foot chapel is a gift to fellow parishioners of a church that has meant so much to their family for decades, and to all who want to participate in prayer and adoration. 

The architect and contractor are both Catholic, which helped in the design of Catholic structure and the construction crew broke ground in mid-December. The Sullivans wanted to reclaim any Catholic artifacts or structural pieces they could for the new chapel. Some of the most striking features of the chapel are the six stained glass windows Mike was able to secure from a demolished church in New York. 

The windows were created by Franz Xaver Zettler who was among a handful of artists known for the Munich style of stained glass from the 19th century.  The Munich style is accomplished by painting detailed pictures on large pieces of glass unlike other stained-glass methods, which use smaller pieces of colored glass to make an image. 

The two primary stained-glass windows depict St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalene, the chapel’s namesake, and they frame either side of the altar which holds the tabernacle and monstrance — both reused from St.  Vincent De Paul church.  

The Sullivans wanted to design a cloistered feel for the space and included the traditional grill and archway that opens into the pews and kneelers with woodwork from St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana. 

The chapel was generously donated by Mike and Shari Sullivan. The stained glass windows, which depict St. Augustine and St. Mary Magdalene, were created by Franz Xaver Zettler, who was among a handful of artists known for the Munich style of stained glass from the 19th century. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

Shari is a convert to Catholicism and didn’t grow up with the practice of Eucharistic adoration, but St. Vincent de Paul pastor Father John Hilton told her to watch how adoration will transform the parish. She said she knows it will, because of what regular Eucharistic adoration has done for her personally. 

The Sullivans are excited that the teachers at St. Vincent de Paul school plan to bring their classes to the warm and inviting chapel to learn about the practice of adoration and reflect on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. 

The words of St. Mary Magdalene “I have seen the Lord,” have become the motto of the chapel, Mike said, and they are emblazoned on a brass plaque to remind those who enter the holy space of Christ’s presence and the personal transformation offered to those inside.

The St. Vincent de Paul  Church and The Eucharistic Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene is located at 2375 E. Arizona Ave. Denver 80210 on the corner of Arizona and Josephine Street. The chapel is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Visit https://saintvincents.org/adorationchapel1 for more information about the chapel and to look for updates on expanded hours as they occur.