London: It is one of the Christmas story’s central and most enduring elements – the sighting of a bright star in the skies guiding the Wise Men to Bethlehem and heralding the birth of Jesus Christ.
But the Vatican has now said it believes the glare from the Star of Bethlehem may have been caused by what is known as a “Great Conjunction” of planets, bringing Venus and Jupiter in close alignment and creating an unusually bright light in the sky above the Holy Land.
And the phenomenon which could have caused such awe more than 2000 years ago is set to happen again – just four days before Christmas.
The planets Saturn, centre-left, and Jupiter, centre-right, are seen between a wind turbine and Milky Way near Vantage in Washington state, US. The two will look like a “double-planet” on December 21, for the first time in 400 years.Credit:AP
The closest approach of two planets since 1226 will take place on December 21 when Jupiter and Saturn come into alignment, creating what astronomers predict will be the marvellous spectacle of an apparently single bright star.
One of the Catholic Church’s most eminent scientists said the latest Great Conjunction may provide significant clues to enhance understanding of the story of the Star of Bethlehem, chronicled in the Gospel of Matthew.
Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno, planetary scientist and director of the Vatican Observatory, said in a BBC Sky at Night magazine virtual lecture on Thursday: “Every year, people ask us astronomers, ‘What was the star?’ This year is special because one of the more popular explanations for the star is a close conjunction of bright planets, and it is going to be visible to anybody with a clear sky.”
Palestinian Christians attend the lighting of a Christmas tree outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.Credit:AP
Several conjunctions of planets occurred within 10 years of the chronological point now taken as the beginning of the Christian era, and may have been responsible for the bright star phenomenon above Bethlehem.
One was a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in 2BC, which according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica “would have appeared to observers in Babylon to have merged just before setting in the general direction of Bethlehem to the west”. Another was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7BC.
Speaking to the Catholic News Agency before the lecture Consolmagno said: “Is this really what the Star of Bethlehem was? No one knows for sure. The important thing to remember is that the Star of Bethlehem is just a small part of the infancy narrative in Matthew’s Gospel. The point of his story isn’t the star. It’s the baby.”
This year’s bright star will be visible from anywhere on Earth in the western sky for roughly an hour after sunset, but conditions will be best near the equator. Dr Brad Tucker, of the Australian National University, said observers should look for “a thin crescent moon and two bright objects right next to it”.
The last Great Conjunction was in May 2000, but its position in the sky meant it was difficult to see.
Patrick Hartigan, an astronomer at Rice University in Texas, said: “Alignments between these two planets are rather rare, occurring once every 20 years or so, but this conjunction is exceptionally rare because of how close the planets will appear to one another. You’d have to go all the way back to just before dawn on March 4, 1226, to see a closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky.“
But for Christians, science alone may still not be enough to explain the Star of Bethlehem.
“Either there was something remarkable in the sky at the time that Jesus was born, or there wasn’t. All we’ve got, though, is the opening part of Matthew’s Gospel. That’s all the data we’ve got to work with,” Consolmagno said.
“Historians have no idea when the birth of Jesus really was.
“But in any event, it’s not that modern astronomy can’t find an explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. It’s that we’ve got too many candidates [of explanations].”
The Telegraph, London
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