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.

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: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”