The Star Of Bethlehem: A Mystery Of All Times (3)
BY astronomical calculations, it has been established that Halley’s (d.1742) Comet made its appearance in 741-742, A.U.C (anno urbis conditae-in the year specified from the founding of Rome) or 12-11B.C., which will be very long before the date usually assigned for Jesus’ birth. In 1911, Peres Lagrange, the famous Dominican biblical Scholar, who was living in Jerusalem, saw a comet at the time of its appearance from the east, fade while it was overhead, and then “reappear” several days later, as it sets in the West, but did not see it behave like the Bethlehem Star that moved and stopped at a point in time. He believes that the Star of Bethlehem is real and not a myth created by the Church, but that it is difficult to know the type of star from astronomical antedating.
At the age of 80, Peres Lagrange, having spent 50 years studying in Palestine in order to check every gospel detail against the known facts, (local customs, history, archeology) superbly said: “My work has led me to conclude that there are no sustainable ‘technical’ objections to the veracity of the gospels. Every detail the text refers to, when scientifically checked, is found to be accurate.” Anyone doubting Peres Lagrange’s competence should refer to the hundreds of issues of his Revue Biblique, or visit the Ecole Biblique, The Dominican Centre for Biblical Studies at Jerusalem! As Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist sang in his canticle: “This is the work of the mercy of our God, Who comes on high as a rising sun shinning on those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace.”
We read during Epiphany the prophecy of Isaiah concerning this: “Above you, the Lord now rises and above you His glory appears. The nations come to your light and kings to your dawning brightness.” St. Mathew testified to this at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: “The people that lived in darkness have seen a great light; on those who dwell in the land and shadow of death a light has dawned” recapping the prophecy of Isaiah as it came to pass. “The opening of the human spirit to truth and goodness” wrote Pope John Paul II “always takes place in the perspective of the ‘true light that enlightens every man.’ This Light is Christ, the Lord Himself, Who has enlightened man’s steps from the very beginning and has entered his heart.”
A second possibility is that a supernova (exploding star) was observed. In this case, a relatively nearby star may have exploded, seen as a temporary bright object in the sky. Once again, nothing like this is recorded in the ancient astronomical records. Again, Rev. Fr. Raymond Brown regarded as the Dean of New Testament Scholar and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, states: “A Supernova can be brighter even than the moon, since the star involved may be a hundred million times more luminous than our sun. About a dozen novae are discovered each year, but the ones visible to the naked eye are much rarer. There is no record of a nova or supernova just before Jesus’ birth date.”
This means that the statement of Ignatius of Antioch, a first century Apostolic Father, in his Letter to the Ephesians (xix: 2), is poetic rather than scientific: “A star shone in heaven beyond all the stars; its light was beyond description, and its newness caused astonishment; all the other stars with the sun and the moon, gathered in chorus around the star, but it far exceeded all in light.” Thus, the theory of a “new star” or supernova by the 17th century Johannes Kepler as contained in the Brochure of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago is purely a guess as recently admitted by Astronomers.
A third theory suggests that the event took place on April 17th, 6 B.C, and was marked by the moon occulting (passing in front of) Jupiter, considered to be a regal planet. Also on that day, and for the only time between 10B.C. and 5A.D. Jupiter had its heliacal rising (when a planet or star is first seen in the morning skies after having spent time hidden by the sun) in Aries, a symbol of Judea. These events had great significance to the astrologers of the day, but modern astronomical discoveries have consigned this theory to the dustbin of oblivion.
The final popular suggestion refers to a planetary conjunction of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn or any other planetary object such as the one that occurred between Venus and Jupiter on June 17th 2B.C, and from May through December in 7B.C between Jupiter (that orbits the sun every 12 years) and Saturn (that orbits the sun every 30 years) as the two planets pass each other every 20 years. Kepler calculated that it happens every 805 years and saw it in his Observatory to have occurred in October 1604 and between 7-6 B.C. A contrary view is from Abraham Bar Hiyya (ca.A.D.1100) who posits that the phenomenon occurs every 2,859 years and the last conjunction was in 1395B.C., heralding the promulgation of the Torah through Moses. He expected that the Messiah will appear before the next conjunction, which was to occur in A.D.1464, but occurred during the lifetime of Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) who was deeply interested in the coming of the Messiah.
Working with Bar Hiyya’s calculations, Abravanel estimated that the Exodus took place 83 years after the conjunction of 1395B.C., and that correspondingly; the Messiah would come 1503 (See J. Sarachek, The Doctrine of the Messiah in Medieval Judaism [2nd ed; New York: Hermon, 1968], 326; A. H. Silver, A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel [Boston: Beacon, 1959], 124-25). One wag suggests that the gathering of bright planets in this constellation was seen as a divine announcement about the future of the Hebrews and requires zodiacal interpretation. But experts say that such a theory is not sufficient to provide a clue because Abrvanel did not know that the phenomenon to which he gave such attention had occurred just before Jesus’ birth and that zodiacal interpretation may not be relied upon, as it had failed many like Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Pharaohs of Egypt, Cyrus of Persia and Alexander the Great and countless others.
The star is evidently described as “wonderful and lies beyond any astronomical investigation” by many Bible Scholars, notably Rev. Fr. John McKenzie in his Dictionary of The Bible. This is also the position of the Pontifical Academy of Science. A cosmologist sounded somewhat defeatist in their scientific efforts: “We will never know for sure what the Christmas Star may have been. This uncertainty factor, combined with the overall mythology of the star and also the fact that several tantalizing possibilities exist, will likely keep our interest about this phenomenon piqued.” After all, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three Portuguese Shepherds in Fatima (1917), no Astronomical Observatory could register the strange lights that appeared in the sky and the accompanying solar prodigy—the miracle of the dancing sun, as it usually happens in all Public Marian Apparitions.
The strange display of lights appeared in northern Europe, Canada and the United States and was talked about in newspapers and some people wondered, “What is the meaning of this?” The sign that Mary predicted was given—“when you see a night illuminated by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign that God is giving you….”(See Ralph Martin, The Catholic Church at the End Of An Age, Pauline Publication, p.171; endorsed by Cardinal Avery Dulles, the Jesuit Theologian and a member of the International Theological Commission and Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, a Franciscan Capuchin and Preacher to the Papal Household). The account of over 70, 000 mammoth crowd that saw the celestial warnings at the subsequent Fatima apparitions is still a puzzle to Astronomers, some of whom were present at the site.
During the beatification of Mother Teresa at the Vatican City, one of the many Astronauts who attended, when interviewed by newsmen acknowledged the inability of scientists to unravel the mystery surrounding the star of Bethlehem and all other divine mysteries. The Specula Vaticana—the Vatican Observatory— one of the most advanced Observatory in the world, where the Pope’s Summer residence at Castel Gandolfo is located, perched at the very edge of a cliff, the castle leaned out over the cradle of Italian civilization—the valley where the Curiazi and Orazi clans fought before the founding of Rome could not sight such a solar prodigy on its radar as noted by the Biblioteca Astronomica—the Vatican Astronomy Library which contains 25, 000 volumes, including rare works of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Secchi and those of notable Catholic Priests. All the historical and scientific evidence point to a magnificent and complex universe created by an Intelligent and Everlasting God. It is a revelation of God’s Omnipotent and Omniscience as we see in the mysteries of the Incarnation, Virgin Birth, etc. Do you believe this?
One thing is clear: As a result of the Fall, “darkness covers the earth and thick darkness envelopes the people” laments Prophet Isaiah, but with the coming of Christ, “the brightness of His Presence will be with you. Nations will be drawn to your light; and kings to the dawning of your new day.” When the Incarnation took place when God in the flesh came in human form to recreate the world; He gave a sign (star) to lighten up the world of darkness, the same darkness that engulfed the world on the first day of creation.
“The earth was the source of life and this life brought light to mankind. This was the real Light—the light that comes into the world and shines on all mankind,” as St. John writes in the prologue to his gospel. As the earth revolves around the sun, so should our lives revolve around the Son of God, “The Sun of Righteousness” and Justice (as Prophet Malachi envisioned), Who is the Light of the world, so that our light can dawn over the darkness of hatred, vengeance, violence and dispel the darkness of bribery and corruption and political banditry and vendetta in our society, which has driven the multitude into misery and destitution. Scripture testifies that “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” and “whoever follows Him will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
As the Star of Bethlehem led the wise men to Jesus, may the light of Christ lead us to peace and joy all the days of our lives! Amen! And as Pope John Paul II once encouraged, let us be like the star that guides others to the light of Christ, “so that individuals and peoples in search of truth, justice and peace may come to Jesus, the Saviour of the world.” The Magi falling to their knees paid Jesus homage. The Psalmist expects all nations to fall prostrate before the Lord, the King of kings and acknowledge His Lordship over all earthly rulers.
As we start the New Year, let us, like the Magi, seek divine guidance and follow the star of Jesus in season and out of season, and pray like the Psalmist: “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” And as St. Paul wrote in his epistle to the Philippians, “You will shine in the world like bright stars because you are offering it the word of life.” And so “arise and shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,” as Prophet Isaiah encourages us in the First Reading on Epiphany Sunday. Amen! Happy New Year! Shalom!
• Sunny Isu, a Chartered Accountant (Fellow), is a budding freelance essayist based in Abuja and can be reached on 07013216992.