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Christmas Star Gets Its Due on Epiphany

By Kim Lawton
c. 2008 Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly
(UNDATED) Christmas, despite what the calendar says, isn’t over. And the star — “star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright”
— that shone over Bethlehem won’t go dim until it gets its proper due on Epiphany on Sunday (Jan. 6).
As told in the Gospel of Matthew, a star marked the birth of Jesus and led wise men, or Magi, from the East to present the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Their arrival in Bethlehem is celebrated by Western Christians on Epiphany, or the 12th Day of Christmas.
For centuries, the star has intrigued astronomers, historians, artists and theologians alike: was it a one-time miracle, a literary myth, or was it an actual astronomical occurrence?
“It’s a fascinating concept,” Ronald Kaitchuck, an astronomer who teaches and directs the planetarium at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., told Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly. “It’s a fascinating question as to whether this is real.”
For the last 40 years, Ball State has presented a popular Christmas show offering possible explanations for the star of Bethlehem.
Observatories across the country offer similar programs.
Many traditions have arisen about the Magi, but the only biblical account is found in the 12 verses that open the second chapter of Matthew. And that doesn’t even say how many Magi there were. Most scholars now believe they were court astrologers from Persia or southern Arabia.
Finding the star hinges on timing.
The birth date of Jesus is not known. According to Matthew, Herod, the king of Judea, was still alive. Scholars disagree about whether Herod died in 4 B.C. or 1 B.C.
Modern scientific discoveries and powerful, high-speed computers allow people today to calculate what the skies looked like at any given point in history. One such series of events, which could account for the star, occurred beginning in 6 B.C.
“Three of the major planets appeared fairly close together in the same part of the sky,” Kaitchuck said. “That would be Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. And then, just a year later, we know from Chinese records, there was a nova, an exploding star.”
Despite years of studying the possibilities, Kaitchuck says he hasn’t reached a conclusion about what the star might have been.
“You see lots of lots of things that are all like maybes,” he said.
“Very definite maybes.”
In College Station, Texas, law professor Rick Larson believes he may have identified the star. He is making presentations about his theory around the world and has just released a DVD about it.
An evangelical Protestant, Larson began his star quest several years ago after he and his daughter made some Wise Men decorations for their front yard.
“When we were done putting those up, Marion, who was probably 8 at the time, says, `Daddy, make a star.’ And so I was hit with this question. `Yeah, I’ll make a star, but what was the star?”‘
Larson looked for clues in Matthew’s account. He came up with nine data points.
“When the Magi arrived from the East, perhaps traveling from Persia or perhaps Babylon, they asked a question, and it’s loaded,” Larson said. “They say, `Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?’
Now something they’d seen in the sky suggested to them a connection with birth, kings and the Jewish nation.
“And they saw the star when they arrived in Jerusalem,” he said. “So it endures over time. So that’s another clue because most celestial events endure over time, but not all do.”
Larson bought an astronomy computer program and started searching calculations of what the ancient skies looked like. And he considered the meanings that constellations and planets had to people in that time.
Jupiter, he said, was the king planet and Venus the mother planet. In June of 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus came together in an extremely rare conjunction — close enough, Larson said, to get the Magi’s attention.
He says other astronomical events are laden with religious symbolism, including a vision recorded in the Book of Revelation that might refer to Jesus’ conception and a lunar eclipse at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.
For Larson, the Bethlehem star “is just the beginning of a celestial poem that ends at Christ’s death at the crucifixion.” Seeing that poem, Larson said, has strengthened his faith and revealed a new side of God.
“To see that he would write in the sky, from before time, celestial poetry to announce the coming and passing of our Messiah took me to a different place,” he said. “To a place where I could see beauty in our Creator that I hadn’t known.”
But some Christians worry that trying to explain the star could detract from the Christmas story.
“I would really hate for the focus on uncovering what this was historically or scientifically or astronomically to eclipse the fact that this is a star of wonder,” said author Frederica Mathewes-Green.
“The star that’s at the center of that part of the story is such an object of wonder because we don’t understand what it is.”
An Eastern Orthodox Christian, Mathewes-Green says the star may be ultimately unexplainable, just like the Christian belief that Jesus was God in human flesh.
“I think that’s one of the things that the star speaks to us, that in its brilliance, its luminosity, its elevated qualities — but yet participating in this very same universe that we’re in — that it shows the depth of the story and, just as it led the wise men, it leads us as well, deeper and deeper into the mystery.”

Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • friendofsaints&angels

    I think it is good that Epiphany is remembered this way. I actually heard a discussion on this topic yesterday, on a catholic radio station called relevant radio. There was a gentleman discussing this stating that He and His family don’t open their christmas gifts until Epiphany. I personally think that christmas tends to bring out the best and worst out of people at the same time. I tend too dwell on loved ones that I have lost, and sometimes think about how evryone is caught up in the whole santa claus and whats on sale thing, and people tend to forget why we celebrate this great day in this first place. One thing that I found kind of ammusing about this conversation that they were having was, think about the money you would save on christmas presents with all of the after christmas sales, and all of the long lines you would also avoid. I think having Epiphany too look forward to can kind of take the stress out of the holidays. The christmas holiday season can beat you up, if you let it.

  • Catherine J Gilsenan

    It has been traditional in Spain to give presents on 6th January (Epiphany), although little by little it is becoming more common to do so on 25th December. At least giving gifts at Epiphany preserves the more spiritual element which is sometimes lost these days in December.

  • nnmns

    Think how much more money you could save by avoiding a church entirely, whether you are a believer or not. I highly recommend a newspaper and leisurely breakfast, perhaps even at a local fast food restaurant with friends.
    That was a real epiphany when I realized how much pleasure there is in spending Sunday mornings that way.

  • pagansister

    Sunday mornings at the beach, or the woods, or just listening to NPR while relaxing in bed is a great way to start Sunday.

  • jestrfyl

    ONLY Matthew has the star or the Magi. All three synoptics have an eclipse at the crucifixion (Thank you, Mark) It sure seems that Matthew was taking some literary license simply to balance the dark of the crucifixion. It is not much of a step then to John’s Light & Life motif in the first chapter. Borg & Crossan have done a marvelous examination of this in their new book, “The First Christmas”.
    Why must we bend history and science to fit faith statements. Why not simply honor the beauty of the story Matthew told and accept it as a way to introduce the power and wonder of Jesus? If science is so important to Biblical credibility, then accept science as it is. It serves no one any good if it is so warped it is no longer science. But that leads right into the Creationist and “Intelligent” Design mythologies – which is the very next article. O’ what a clever segue!

  • Henrietta22

    Mystery is good, it leads you to wisdom, and closer to God.

  • kami

    To the one who commented about the star over Bethlehem being recorded only in Matthew’s gospel; remember Matthew’s audience were Jews. He focused more Jesus Christ being the coming long-promised Messiah. The Savior promised way back on Genesis 3:15. Out of all the Gospels this is the one which often refers back to the Old Testament prophecies the most. Also, it’s highly plausible the magi were from Babylon and learned of some of the signs of the coming Messiah when the Hebrews were in Babylonian captivity within the Old Testament. The same signs which were already known by the priests Herod had asked when the magi first visited him.
    The gospel of Matthew focuses on Jesus Christ as long ago promised Savior.
    Mark was written towards the Romans who favored more action. This focuses on Jesus’ authority. Mark received much of his testimony from the disciple Peter. It’s also the shortest of the Gospels.
    Luke received testimony from Jesus’ mother Mary. Should one notice he focuses on Jesus as the Great Physician. He’s more compassionate and articulate within his writings. He also gives reference to offer a time-frame on various events…such as labeling Caesar Augustus’ As Rome’s ruler as well as as being the time when Joseph and Mary needed to be in Bethlehem for taxation purposes.
    John is the most theological of the Gospels and focus on Jesus as being God Himself. That Jesus was, is, and always will be God. Yet He was was not always a human being. (John 1:1-5, 9-14)

  • jestrfyl

    I actually used some of the material from this article in my sermon today, as well as some of Borg & Crossan’s too. My basic premise is that it doesn’t make any difference what the Star was, or even if there was a Star. Matthew used the Star, like any wonder or miracle, to get people’s attention. The Good Portion is the lessons, the parables, and stories he told, the wisdom. Jesus was the compilation of God’s power and wisdom and that is what we celebrate. Christmas is, as B & C so beautifully put it, the overture tho a greater symphony.
    Fixating on what is really kind of trivial tends toward idolatry. The Star is a fun tool to use with kids and beginners in the faith. But after a while, it is time to move on and learn why the miracles and wonders happened.

  • jestrfyl

    Nice synopsis of the 4 Gospels. You left out the synoptic theory and Q, but I guess in brevity there is hope (and wit, so they say). That Babylonian connection is a clever introduction to their connection to the Jews through the Exile. But you left out one other piece. That is the Maccabees. The Messiah the Jews expected was not simply some heir of David’s dynasty. They had very real hopes that another Maccabee would rise up and smack down not only the Romans, but the people who had so sanitized the Temple as to make it useless. It had been only 200 years (and remember all the hoopla about our bicentennial) from the Maccabeean revolt to Jesus ministry, and the people wanted more of that action. “Luke” worked especially hard at reversing that thinking. Matthew also wanted to re-draw the portrait of “a king”.
    All this aside, the Star was a lovely literary devise, as surely learned from the Babylonians as it was adapted from the Zoroastrians. Regardless of where it came from, it worked. 2,000 years later kids are still wearing bath robes and carry body powder boxes with great solemnity to trough. And they remember the story because of it (he best commentary on its power is “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”). So rather than make it a ball of gas or burning rock, accept it as a work of amazing imagination – far more powerful and fantastic.

  • Charles Laster

    I’ve read somewhere that there was a conjunction of the planets jupiter(symbolic of kingship)and saturn(associated in astrology with the Jewish people), one that reached its height in Pisces. Now, the Persians had astrologers who could read the sky like a newspaper, and they’d say…Jupiter, Saturn..a king has been born to the Jews. Now the Persians weren’t pagans, in that they did worship one god, Ormuzd,and they were actually tolerant and compassionate toward the Jews, so they’d be interested. In the middle ages, Christ was known as the Fisher King. Many of his miracles were associated with water(water into wine at cana, the feedin of the multitudes with five loaves and two fish). The oldest Christian symbol? The ICTHUS. The fish sign, an acronym for Ieosus Christos Theos Huios Soter(Jesus Christ son of God savior. Are we seeing a pattern here?

  • cloner

    Traditionally speaking, when do christians take down all Christmas decorations and the navtivity? Some have said wait until Epiphany, but our priest said not until we celebrate Jesus’s baptism.

  • Anonymous

    can somebody tell me how long you leave the crib or nativity scene out for as with tradition the wise men didn’t visit the stable till the ep

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