“The light shines in the darkness,” wrote St. John nearly two millennia ago, “and the darkness has not understood it.”
How strange that tomorrow night, the night of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice, offers a reminder of what Christians regard as the cosmic signal that the world’s long-awaited Messiah had come.
God and west central Nebraska skies willing, we’ll see the closest conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn since 1226 in the southwest sky just after sunset Monday.
They’ll be so close (to our eyes, that is) that they’ll shine as one, providing a reasonable facsimile of the “Star of Bethlehem” said to have guided the three Magi (Wise Men) from present-day Iran to that rude stable in King David’s native town.
Astronomers and biblical scholars offer several theories (beyond a unique miracle, of course) as to how and when that original bright star came to appear.
But the movement of heavenly bodies can be accurately tracked backward and forward in time. It’s known that Jupiter and Saturn came together — not once but three times — over the Middle East in 7 B.C., within the most likely time period for Christ’s birth.
(Note: Though “B.C.” means “before Christ” and “A.D.” stands in Latin for “in the year of our Lord,” it’s acknowledged that Dionysius Exiguus, the early Catholic monk whose numbering of the years most of the world follows, fouled up in trying to align Christ’s birth year with A.D. 1.)
Jupiter and Saturn’s joint appearances that year, according to the late German author Werner Keller, line up well with the tale of the Magi.
“Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” they asked the people of Jerusalem in Matthew 2:2. “For we have seen His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
The Magi were astrologers of Persia’s Zoroastrian faith. They watched the stars from an Iranian observatory, meaning they likely saw the first Jupiter-Saturn conjunction on May 29 of 7 B.C.
Matthew’s “in the east” should be rendered “in the first rays of dawn,” which matches that event’s known astronomical facts, Keller wrote in “The Bible As History” in 1955.
Jupiter and Saturn appeared together in the Pisces constellation, which astrologers referred to the Western world. Jupiter was a royal star; Saturn stood for the lands of Palestine and especially for Israel.
To the Magi, it meant a king had been born to the Jews, Keller wrote.
But it would have been daunting, given the infamous desert heat of Middle Eastern summers, to set out for Palestine when the Magi first saw the special star.
The Jupiter-Saturn combination appeared again on Oct. 3, 7 B.C., and finally Dec. 4. The time between those second and third conjunctions would have allowed the Persian astrologers to reach Jerusalem, Keller wrote.
Finally, the position in the Judean sky of that third and final conjunction would have enabled the Magi to “follow” it the six miles to Bethlehem, as recorded in Matthew 2:9.
Neither this example nor other cosmic Star of Bethlehem candidates can be proved, because Christians have no precise record of exactly when Jesus was born. (They chose Dec. 25 for worship-related reasons.)
Nonetheless, Americans of December 2020 have a unique opportunity to look to the heavens and imagine the Wise Men story so many of us learned as kids.
What will they and we learn from it all?
Probably little. But perhaps it might prompt more people to note the contrast between the all-loving Prince of Peace and the cold, cynical world.
The fruits of the latter, along with some of the former, have marked this coronavirus-ravaged year of 2020. Though the empire ruled in 7 B.C. by Caesar Augustus of Rome officially enjoyed the “Pax Romana” — the “Roman peace” — it was filled with human failings and cruelty nonetheless.
The recorded details of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of the Babe of Bethlehem, the one the Magi came to see, remain the ultimate rebuke to humanity’s destructive selfishness and the ultimate path to the elusive “peace that passes all understanding.”