Today: Sunday, December 08, 2019

Christmas - following the star    (12/21/2008)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him...

(The passage above is from Matthew [NT] chapter 2, verses 1-2).

The star of Bethlehem may be the best-known space event in history. As an integral part of the Christmas story, it features on many a Christmas card every year.

While sceptics dismiss the star as pure legend, several astronomical events probably occurred around the time Jesus was born, and could have been significant enough to lead three astronomers from (probably) Iraq to make a perilous two-month journey to the home of Joseph, Mary and Jesus in Bethlehem.

The three main events which could have been responsible for the unusually bright ‘star' include a comet, a supernova, and a conjunction of planets. Now, any search of history—or a tour of the heavens with planetarium software—soon reveals that none of these occurred on, or around, 25 Dec in the year 1AD.

But wait! Most historical evidence points to the birth of Jesus as actually taking place somewhere between 7BC and 1AD—4BC is most often suggested. (It wasn't until 1,500 years after the event that Pope Gregory introduced the system of counting years from the birth of Jesus—hence it was tough to be precise.)

And the fact that the shepherds were out in the fields, watching their sheep, is a clue that the time of year was more like early spring than the more traditional December. (Sorry!)

Conjunctions of planets occurred throughout these years, but the one most often suggested as a good possibility for the Christmas star occurred on 17 June, 2BC.

Imagine Venus and Jupiter beginning to merge in the constellation Leo. They would have eventually been so close together in the evening sky that they would be seen as a single, very bright star, low in the sky, just after sunset. And as the earth rotated, this bright ‘object' travelled from east to west across the sky each night, perhaps getting brighter as the planets got to their closest point in the intensely dark desert sky.

For ancient astrologers, the scientists of the day, this impressive conjunction would have been impossible to miss. It would have been seen as a sign that something big was happening, such as the birth of a significant king. (OK, nowadays we don't go along with that part of the science bit, but it certainly got their attention!)

If God did indeed send his son into his world, is it so strange to imagine he would have announced this major event across his own heavens? This was a message of hope from a God who cared enough to allow his only son to take on humanity and, ultimately, to die for us.

As the star gets pinned to the top of the Christmas tree this year, remember the magi who followed a bright star to Bethlehem to worship a king. Jesus is still there to be worshipped. Happy Christmas.

Pray: Lord God, help me to sense the wonder of Christmas as if for the first time this year. Please bless me and those whom I love. Amen.

Think about: Imagine a time without TV, or cinema, or books (or widespread literacy). A time without electricity, and without the sky being affected by light pollution. The night sky would take on major significance, wouldn't it? And you'd notice when something in it changed? No wonder God chose to place this star in the sky; no wonder people far away saw it and wondered at it; no wonder it brought people travelling from miles away to investigate.

Challenge: This Christmas, make your peace with someone. Go on, pick up the phone; don't chicken out by using email, card, SMS or letter. Just call them up and wish them happy Christmas. Help spread a little peace on earth.

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