And by the light of that same star
Three Wise men came from country far
To seek for a King was their intent
And to follow the star wherever it went.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!
'Tis the season for songs about stars. When Christmas carols began filling our Indigo Night office a few weeks back, I wondered about this Star of Bethlehem. We've tracked down Tennyson's star, Whitman's and Van Gogh's. Surely the New Testament's most famous astronomical celestial body couldn't be difficult to identify.
Turns out, it is. Without going too deeply into how the Bible was constructed, the writers of the Gospels weren't overly concerned in detailing precisely when Jesus was born. The gospels providing the sketchy historical documentation on Jesus's birth date -- Matthew and Luke -- were writing some 80 to 90 years after his death. So getting a bead on what was happening in the sky when Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem and bedded down in a stable was not as easy as I had hoped. This fuzziness, however, has been a boon to amateur astronomers with internet sites. In short, theories abound.
Without a specific date, it seems plausible that the Star of Bethlehem could have been one the following: a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, occurring three times in 7 months before being joined by Mars; a double conjunction of Venus and Jupiter near Regulus, the "Little King"; a super nova observed by Chinese astronomers; or a comet. I'm personally fine with leaving this up in the air, so to speak. The fact that celestial events have astounded all who've observed them throughout recounted time is weighty with truth.
During my research, what caught my attention was the discussion of who these Wise Men -- these Magi -- were. Wikipedia tells us
Magi (Latin plural of magus; Ancient Greek μάγος (magos); Old Persian (maguš) (Modern Persian مغ (mogh)); Arabic مجوس; English singular magian, mage, magus, magusian, magusaean) is a term, used since at least the 4th century BC, to denote a follower of Zoroaster, or rather, a follower of what the Hellenistic world associated Zoroaster with, which was – in the main – the ability to read the stars, and manipulate the fate that the stars foretold.
In fact, some New Testament translations still refer to the Wise Men as "astrologers." Given that their trip east was triggered by a celestial phenomenon, this makes sense. According to Matthew, the Magi were unfamiliar with the Old Testament's prophesy that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. It is an understandably worried Herod who directs them there.
Before scholars of the medieval church began classifying knowledge as "good" and "evil," astrology was considered vital to the workings of human events. Births and deaths, especially, were tied to the placements of the planets and stars. One theory is that, aware of this fact, Matthew may have included the astrologers' homage to Jesus as a way to signal his importance to non-believers.
Whether one believes in the historical accuracy of the nativity story or believes its meaning to reside somewhere deeper, it seems fitting that during the longest nights of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere, that is), when we have the most time to contemplate the heavens, one of the most enduring symbols should be a wonderous star, amazing shepherds and kings alike. Reminding us of that night centuries ago, stars blaze atop our Christmas trees, filling our homes with their beauty and light.