Even though the vast majority of us are not astronomers, the famous star of Bethlehem still has a great ability to intrigue us especially as it relates to its actual astronomical occurrence. As Christians we believe in the Christmas story, not as legend or myth, but as an actual historical occurrence which led to the Redemption of mankind by the Son of God – Jesus Christ.
There are many elements of the Nativity of Christ that are expressed by the evangelists, and one of the most interesting is the illumination of Israel by a brilliant star at the time of the actual birth of Jesus. The Christmas Star has intrigued artists and poets in its ability to shed light on the truth of the cosmic meaning of Christmas; and in recent years some research has been done using computer animation and astronomical programs to determine if, when, and where it actually occurred.
The EWTN network usually airs a contemporary and extremely popular documentary entitled The Star (of Bethlehem) (please examine the filmmaker – Rick Larson’s site – for a wonderful, multipart, overview of his documentary: www.bethlehemstar.net/
The following post attempts to determine the birth date of Jesus Christ in light of the astronomical evidence. The quotes I provide are taken from a fascinating study entitled Probable Date of Birth of Christ found in this website: www: copiosa.org/christmas/birth_date.htm by Father William G. Most (Fr. Most’s article offers a summary of the work done by E. L. Martin, in his book The Star That Astonished the World, ASK Publications).
“In the evening of June 17, 2 BC, there was a spectacular astronomical event in the western sky. Venus moved eastward seemingly going to collide with Jupiter. They appeared as one star, not two, dominating the twilight of the western sky in the direction of Palestine. This conjunction had not happened for centuries, and would not happen again for more centuries. Jupiter was considered the Father, Venus the Mother.
Then not many days later, Venus came within 0.36 degrees of Mercury. On September 11 came the New Moon, the Jewish New Year. This happened when Jupiter, the King planet was approaching Regulus, the King star. Further, there were three conjunctions of Jupiter and Regulus within the constellation of Leo, the lion, which was considered the head of the Zodiac.
Now Genesis 49:10 had foretold there would always be a ruler from Judah, whom Jacob called the lion, until the time of the Messiah. The star Regulus, which astronomers called the King Star, dominated Leo.
The Magi, being astronomers and astrologers, would surely read these signs. (The three conjunctions with Regulus were August 12, 3 BC; February 17, 2 BC, and May 8/9, 2 BC). In Hebrew, Jupiter was called sedeq = “righteous,” a term especially pertaining to the Messiah.
On September 11, Jupiter was close in the constellation of Virgo, the virgin. On September 3rd of 3 BC Jupiter was in conjunction with Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo — Leo the Lion, which was associated with Kings, and the Lion of Judah, as foretold by the dying Jacob in Egypt in Genesis 49:10.
Also, on December 25 of 2 BC, Jupiter stopped for 6 days over Bethlehem. This is a normal motion for Jupiter; it stops twice, and reverses its seeming movement. This may have been the very time the Magi came with their gifts. This was also the time of the Hanukkah festival, during which it was customary for Jewish Fathers to give gifts to their children.
The shepherds watching their flocks in the fields indicate a date either in late summer or early fall.
E.L. Martin [whose research this article is based on] thinks the birth of Jesus was in September, 3 BC (Jupiter in conjunction with Regulus), and the probable date of the Magi was December 25, 2 BC (Jupiter stopped for 6 days over Bethlehem).”
Please don’t forget when we speak in BC time, the “ladder of time” comes down from let us say 10,000 BC to 1 BC, in a descending order, so 3 BC comes before 2 BC.
In AD time (Anno Domini, a Latin phrase which means “the year of Our Lord” the “ladder of time” is ascending, so, we are currently in the year 2012, but as of midnight December 31st, we will then be in the year 2013, or two thousand and thirteen years since the birth of Christ. When this Gregorian Calendar system was developed and applied to western Europe, approximately five hundred years ago, they did not have the sophistication of computer/astronomical observations to correct the date of Christ’s birth, if we agree with Martin’s research, to the year 3 BC.
“The above span of dates (approx. 16 months) coincides with The Slaughter of the Innocents, where Herod killed all males under the age of two years. Herod died shortly thereafter. Interestingly, More than 600 planetariums here and in Europe have revised their Christmas star show to match this work of E. L. Martin.”
The above painting is entitled the Adoration of the Magi by Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337). The Star of Bethlehem is shown as a comet above the child. Giotto witnessed an appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1301.
“Magi were not really just astrologers. They served as court advisors, going from one royal court to another. It would not then be difficult to suppose they had come from a great distance with gifts. In those days all astronomers were acquainted with astrology. They were also mathematicians.” This is the end of Fr. Most’s article.
For more information check out Fr. Most’s website: copiosa.org/christmas/index.htm. As you go down this index on the left hand side you will see Fr. Most’s complete article on the Probable Date of the Birth of Christ. His site has some very interesting articles that can be very helpful in explaining to people – especially children – the origins of Catholic Christmas traditions.
The above icon was written (painted) in Russia and displays, in a lovely catechetical way, the entire Nativity narrative: the angel’s appearance to the shepherds, the Star of Bethlehem (appearing as a disk with a shaft of light coming down to the cave of the birth, the actual birth of the child Jesus being wrapped in swaddling clothes by His Blessed Mother – Mary, the coming of the Magi, the washing of the child Jesus, and St. Joseph being visited by an old man in furs (some refer to this last image as the temptation to doubt that confronted Joseph.
Soon after the dream visitation by an angel, St. Joseph realizes the nature of this Child. He understands that he is given the responsibility to care for Him and His mother and raise the child as if He was his very own. St. Joseph does exactly that; he is the epitome of quiet, loving leadership, and a model for all fathers.
St. Joseph is silent throughout the entire Gospel narrative. Yet, his actions speak louder than words. We see in St. Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 1: 18ff) that he ultimately had a thoughtful plan to quietly divorce Mary when he learns that she is pregnant; however, he is not stubborn or hard of heart, for when the angel Gabriel visits him and tells him what is happening he does not rebel and say “No, I will not do it” out of pride or ego. Rather, he changes his plan and trusts the angel’s message which was sent by God to him.
This is so important – and it should speak volumes to us – if we, too, have open hearts and minds to hear what God is telling us in prayer, Scripture, and the grace of the Holy Sacraments. These three sacred tools, along with a holy orthodox spiritual director, will assist us on our path – and like the Star of Bethlehem – lead us to the Christ.
In the immortal words of Tiny Tim Cratchit: “… and a Merry Christmas, everyone!”
Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved