So it is Christmas. This time of year means a lot of things to a lot of people. There are a multitude of observances by a multitude of belief systems. To Christians, the followers of the namesake of Christmas, it is a time to reflect on what God did for mankind over 2,000 years ago. But regardless of where you stand, or how strong your beliefs are, or how you were raised, Christmas is a cultural phenomenon, a juggernaut of events, a societal force to be reckoned with.
Plus, this year we have the star.
Actually, the “star” that has everyone abuzz is the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, a fairly rare event in human time. But like everything in the immensity of the universe, it happens like clockwork. On December 21st we will be able to see with our own eyes what has not been seen for 800 years. And, many people want to believe, what happened at the birth of Christ.
The impetus for this belief is in these passages of scripture:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”
When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2:1-2, 7-11
Now I’m not going to be all Debbie Downer here and show all the reasons why this is not that star, but a few facts are worth looking at, and one big fact is worth dwelling on.
First, some of those facts.
The wise men from the East would have been from somewhere east of Israel. That could mean Iraq or Iran, Turkey or one of the ‘Stans. It could mean India or China, even Myanmar or Vietnam. So, the journey could have been anywhere from 600 miles to 6,000 miles. Given a daily average of fifteen miles, that puts our wise guys 40 to 400 days away. So whatever star they were following had some characteristics worth considering:
- It was visible that entire time
- It moved
- It was obvious
Here’s where it gets interesting. The child they sought was nearly two years old. How do we know this?
- He was called a “young child” in verse 7 above, and that is very specific language
- He lived in a house, not in a manger
- Herod issued a decree to kill all children under two years of age
While all this was going on – the initial observance of the star, the travel time, the meeting with Herod, finding Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in their home (likely back in Nazareth, another 80 miles from Bethlehem) – that star kept shining, and kept guiding the wise men to the place, acting as a celestial GPS to keep the boys headed in the right direction (“in 1.2 miles, turn left”).
We, we being me, you, and everybody else, like to condense the Christmas story into a short span. Some religions stretch the story out over weeks and feast days and events, some keep it short, some observe the one day. And that’s all good, because Jesus was born at one moment, like everybody else, but this story lasted over two years.
Ah, but wait, you say. Wasn’t there something special about that time? Indeed, there was. Check this out, from Space.com, author Joe Rao:
Actually, one of the more popular theories for the “Christmas Star” was a series of conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC. For in that year Jupiter and Saturn met not once but three times that year (in May, September, and December).
The first conjunction (on May 29 — visible “in the east” before sunrise) presumably started the Magi on their way to Bethlehem from the Far East. The middle conjunction (September 30) may have strengthened their resolve in the purpose of their journey, while the third and final conjunction (Dec. 5) occurred just as they arrived in Judea to meet with King Herod, who sent them on to Bethlehem to “go and search diligently for the young child.”
See Kenny, you doubter, it IS the Christmas star.
Put away the torches, I’m not trying to ruin your holiday observances. Keep in mind we still have a time/distance problem. And another big spectral problem.
My wife and I love to sit in the hot tub and watch the planets come up and stars come to life in the night sky. We can clearly see Jupiter and Saturn – Jupiter being much brighter, because it is closer, with Saturn still being quite visible. Now, hold onto your hats, when those two planets reach conjunction, they do not suddenly get immensely bright and provide a reliable guidance tool. What you will see tomorrow night, if you look, is a bit brighter light from where Jupiter sits. I am afraid many are in for a bit of a disappointment, much like those Super Moon and meteor shower events.
Dang, Kenny, you’re no fun.
Hey, go out and observe the conjunction. You will not be able to see it again for 800 years or so. Any astrological phenomenon is worth a look. As a matter of fact, go out every night and look up. There is wonder every night if you have a clear sky. Mars rises in the east and can be distinguished by its pink tint. Jupiter is always dazzling. Even our humble moon puts on a gorgeous display, and my wife always, and I mean ALWAYS, says: “I see the moon, and the moon sees me” because she is, after all, a retired kindergarten teacher.
And, you guessed it, I have a point to make.
We all will approach this time of year from differing perspectives. We all will enjoy whatever it is that makes this time of year special for us, whether it’s chestnuts roasting on the open fire, trimming the tree, wrapping presents, going over-the-river-and-through-the-woods to visit family and friends. We will eat more than we should, spend more than we ought, probably drink a wee bit too much. And all of that is more than great – it is good that so many people at one time attempt to locate Joy in their lives and to spread that Joy to those around them.
But do you see what I see?
In the midst of all the activity, religious and secular, there remains the unflinching fact that Christmas is about Christ. That tree you are decorating? It is a Christmas tree. The stamps for the cards I am mailing? They say Christmas right on them. Those delicious cakes baked by our friends in Collegedale, Tennessee? Christmas Tree Cakes – it says so right on the box.
I guess we should look to the wisdom of a cartoon character in the greatest of all the Christmas TV specials:
Enjoy your traditions, observe your faith, spread the joy in ways simple and true. And go out tomorrow night to observe what may not be the Christmas Star, but may point us towards that baby born away-in-a-manger over 2,000 years ago.
See what I see. A star, a star, dancing in the night. The child, the child, He will bring us goodness and light.
Merry Christmas to all!