On December 21, a rare phenomenon will occur: if weather conditions cooperate, a “Christmas star” will be visible in the night sky.
It won’t really be a star at all; rather, it will be the planets Jupiter and Saturn so close together that they appear to the naked eye as one (even though they’ll actually still be millions of miles apart), creating the illusion of one bright star in the night sky. The last time they were this close together was in 1623. The last time they were this close together and visible from earth was 1226. That’s the narrative.
If you’ve been on Facebook much in the past month (and aren’t we all?), you’ve seen a lot of memes referencing the upcoming visibility of the Christmas star. Most people prefer to think of it as a sign from God in this troubled year of 2020 that He’s guiding us even now, as He guided the Wise Men to a baby Jesus more than 2,000 years ago.
My intent is not to pooh-pooh on the appearance of this “star.” Because the Christmas star is such an important part of Christmas symbolism in our culture, this astrological phenomenon during the Christmas season — and on the winter solstice, no less — is going to be fairly amazing, even though the planets will be low in the sky, towards the horizon, and will not create the high-in-the-sky, bright appearance that some might anticipate. (In fact, it should be noted that no one knows exactly what this alignment of our two biggest planets will look like, because it’s something that hasn’t happened in hundreds of years … but most experts seem to agree that to the average person with good eyesight, they won’t actually appear as one star, after all — which, if true, will be kinda disappointing after all the hype.)
Rather, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at this 2020 Christmas star vs. the star that led the Wise Men to Jesus. Is it the same thing?
The star that led the Wise Men to Jesus may not have occurred at Christmas. Although our greeting cards and decorations always place the Wise Men at the nativity with the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth, that simply isn’t biblical. Some traditions place the Wise Men on the scene 12 days after the birth of Jesus, but most theologians agree it was likely months — at least — before the magi arrived. Either way, the Wise Men were not there for the manger scene, and so if we think of Christmas as the night of Christ’s birth, the star that led them to Jesus wasn’t really a “Christmas star” at all.
Of course, there were two different iterations of the star: its appearance as it led the Wise Men on the final six miles of their journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and the initial appearance that caused the Wise Men to begin their journey towards Jerusalem … and the initial appearance may well have been on the night Christ was born, though the Bible doesn’t specify that.
The ‘Christmas star’ in the Bible
The Gospel of Matthew is the only of the four canonical gospels that mentions a star, and it doesn’t say much about it. Matthew 2:9 says this:
“When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”
Clearly, the Wise Men were being guided by a star on their quest to find the baby Jesus. But biblical scholars disagree on just exactly what that star was.
For that matter, biblical scholars can’t even agree on who the Wise Men were. In our nativity scenes and on our greeting cards, they’re always depicted as three wealthy men — and our culture also refers to them as “kings” (We three kings, of orient are …). But there is no indication from the Bible as to whether they were actually kings or how many of them there actually were.
The case for three magi comes from the fact that they were bearing three different gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh. But there could have been more than three. There is some thought among scholars and historians that the men may have been kings of Yemen, but they may not have been kings at all. (However, the prophet Isaiah in the 8th century B.C. wrote of “kings [coming] to the brightness of your dawn” bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. Isaiah 60:1-6.)
The only thing certain from the gospels is that they were magi who saw a star and followed it out to seek this baby Jesus. And when a scheming King Herod learned of their quest upon their arrival in Jerusalem, he directed them to Bethlehem and urged them to return to him with Jesus’s location, secretly planning to kill Christ to prevent a threat to the throne.
There is a lot of debate among scholars about just what the star was that led the Wise Men to Jesus. Some suggest it was an actual star, some say it was the alignment of planets (similar to what we’ll see on December 21), some say it was an angel, some say it was a comet, some say it was a supernova … and some say it was a light placed in the sky by God.
Magi, in the Greek language in which the Gospel of Matthew was originally written, refers to men who were well-versed in astrology — which was an elite science in biblical times. The forthcoming of a king of the Jews had been prophesied for hundreds of years, and the magi studied the night sky for signs that they would use to interpret current events. So, remembering the teachings of the prophets, when they saw this bright light in the sky, they correctly interpreted it as a sign of Christ’s birth and followed it to Jerusalem in search of Him. It was the Wise Men who brought news of the birth of Jesus to Herod and the rest of Jerusalem.
The Wise Men’s arrival
Regardless of what this star was that led the Wise Men to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem, it might not have been a “Christmas” star because it might not have happened at Christmas. We don’t know exactly when the Wise Men arrived on the scene — only that it wasn’t the night of Jesus’s birth.
There’s actually important symbolism in that — the first on the scene of Jesus’s birth weren’t the wealthy and the mighty, but the lowly shepherds.
When the Wise Men did show up to worship Him, many scholars agree that Jesus was likely somewhere around a year old. Western Christianity has traditionally celebrated the arrival of the magi on January 6, twelve days after Christmas. However, when the Wise Men were warned by God in a dream of Herod’s true intent and decided to return to their native land by a different route instead of retracing their journey to Jerusalem, Herod ordered the death of all male children aged two and under. Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus to Egypt, where they remained in hiding until Herod’s death, when they returned to Galilee and settled in Nazareth.
In ordering the deaths of male children in Bethlehem, there’s no doubt that Herod was being particularly cautious. He, too, knew the prophets’ writings of the coming messiah. But if Jesus were a newborn, there would’ve been no need for him to order the deaths of toddlers. Matthew wrote that Herod quizzed the magi about exactly when the star had first appeared, and he based his order on that timeline. Also, Matthew writes that when the Wise Men finally arrived in Bethlehem, they found Mary and Jesus as a “child” — not in a manger but in a proper house. (Of course, customs of the time would indicate that the manger may well have been on the ground floor of a family home — where the livestock was traditionally given shelter at night — rather than in a “barn” as our traditions indicate … but that’s a completely different rabbit hole.)
So the iteration of the star mentioned in Matthew 2:9, after the magi had left Herod, that “went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was,” certainly didn’t occur at Christmas. Rather, it occurred some time later. However, in Matthew 2:2, the Wise Men asked of Herod, “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.” Matthew didn’t specify that the star appeared the night Christ was born — but there’s also no reason to think that it didn’t appear in the night sky at the same time the angel of God was appearing to the shepherds.
So the initial appearance of the star may well have been on Christmas night, though there are too many unanswered questions to know exactly when it appeared. For starters, how long did the Wise Men’s journey across the desert take? There’s no way to know without knowing their starting point. Did they leave as soon as they saw the star or did they tarry?
So what was this star?
This December 21, the Christmas star — the brighter-than-usual light in the night sky — will be the relatively close alignment of Jupiter and Saturn. We don’t know what the star was that the Wise Men saw. If it was divine intervention, there’s no way to know for sure. If it was a natural occurrence, science offers a few indications.
It’s all speculation because no one knows exactly when Christ as born. Due to an error by a church cleric many years later, our dateline is flawed; it’s thought that Jesus was born at least as early as 4 B.C., and possibly earlier than that. Many biblical scholars generally place the timing of His birth between 7 B.C. and 4 B.C. Also, we know Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25, even though that’s when we celebrate His birth. The timing of the Christmas holiday dates back to Roman emperor Constantine, who adopted Christianity as the empire’s official religion in the 3rd century. Prior to that, Romans had celebrated Sol Invictus — the rebirth of the unconquered sun — on December 25, a festival that commemorated the passing of the winter solstice and the return of longer days.
Rather, many scholars believe Jesus was probably born in early spring, due to Luke’s account of the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. In biblical times, this was done in the spring, when new lambs were born. (And because Jesus’s birth, life and death are rife with symbolism, wouldn’t it make perfect sense for the Lamb of God to be born during the birthing season for lambs?)
The ancient Chinese recorded the appearance of a supernova — for two months — during the spring of 5 B.C. With all of the above considered, that could have very well been the star that guided the Wise Men. The Chinese also recorded the appearance of a comet in 5 B.C. Again, that could have been what guided the Wise Men (though many scholars are quick to point out that comets were regarded at the time as evil).
Additionally, astrological timing indicates that there was a series of planet conjunctions — close alignments of Jupiter, Saturn and possibly other planets) in 6 B.C. and 5 B.C. So, it’s quite possible after all that the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that we’ll witness on December 21 is the same astrological occurrence that caused the Wise Men to drop everything and begin a journey across the desert to Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago in order to worship the messiah.
Either way, we know this: On that first Christmas night or whenever the star appeared, the Wise Men began journeying to Bethlehem on the same quest as the shepherds who would arrive well before them — to witness the arrival of a king, a savior of the world. It was, as the heavenly multitude proclaimed to the shepherds, a call for peace on earth, and goodwill toward men.
And as we arrive at Christmas 2020, battered and bruised by a global pandemic, economic hardships and political turmoil, we could certainly use peace on earth and goodwill toward men.