Psalm 8 says the stars declare God's majesty. Psalm 136 says the stars remind people that God's love lasts forever. And, according to the first chapter of Genesis, the stars serve another important function. God placed the stars in the heavens to serve "for signs and for seasons, and for days and years (Gen 1:14 ESV).
Among all the stars that have served to mark the days and times of the year and the seasons of human history, probably none is more well-known than the Star of Bethlehem. The second chapter of Matthew's gospel tells about this celestial signpost and its role in leading seekers to the one who was born King of the Jews. The twelve verses dedicated to the account seem to suggest that scholars in Jerusalem hadn't noticed the star until the wise men asked about it. Ever since, people have wondered about the nature of that light and how it led those early travelers.
In their book, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? ... And Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-Box at the Vatican Observatory, astronomer Guy Consolmagno and Fr. Paul Mueller devote a chapter to this question: What was the Star of Bethlehem?
The book is set up as a dialog between the two authors, and they discuss some of the problems related to determining the astronomical facts: First, no one really knows the precise year of Jesus's birth. The practice of dating years from the time of Christ was adopted in 525 AD, and the count of the intervening years appears to have been slightly inaccurate. The exact date on which Jesus was born is also uncertain. The tradition of celebrating on December 25 was adopted in the third century, and historians have offered various reasons for why this particular date was chosen. Some scholars note that biblical details hint that the actual day of Jesus's birth may have been during the spring.
Consolmagno and Mueller's chapter provides an overview of some of the most commonly offered explanations for the Star of Bethlehem: a nova or supernova, a comet, or perhaps a conjunction of planets. According to Consolmagno, Johannes Kepler, a famous astronomer of the early seventeenth century, speculated that "a particularly interesting series of conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn" occurred in 7 BC. Consolmagno also discusses a newer theory proposed by Michael Molnar in Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi suggesting an alignment of the planets that rose with the morning sun during the spring of 6 BC.
Many other alignments and astronomical events have been advocated by various researchers. Their multiplicity leads Consolmagno to remark, "Astronomy, which we had looked to as a source of objective truth, turns out to fail us—not for having no answer, but for having too many possible answers."
Mueller follows with another question: "What did the story of the Star mean to Matthew?" Mueller proposes that the Star was "meant to reveal something about God and about the Kingdom of God."
The two continue their dialog discussing the nature of the miracles, and Consolmagno offers his opinion about the most amazing part of the story of the Magi. "It's that they would be able and willing to recognize the child they found to be the king they were seeking."
Mueller describes a plaque featuring the motto of the Vatican Observatory, "Deum creatorem venite adoremus." In English the words mean, "Come let us adore God, the Creator."
Perhaps the wonder of the Star was never meant to be understood in the context of its physical characteristics, but in following it and in worshiping the One to whom it pointed.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Observations: A Pier Press® Newsletter. You can access the archived issue here, and if you're not already a subscriber, click here to sign up. It's free.