Finding the star on Christmas

By Steve Pable | For The Compass | December 22, 2021

Question

Each year, my children want to go out and “see the Christmas star.”  We go out, but I am never sure of a good way to pick a star and what to tell them about it.  Any suggestions? — Manitowoc

Answer

When I mentioned this question to my own kids, their eyes glazed over as they prepared for the inevitable lecture. “Well, you bring up a fascinating subject…” You can tailor information to your audience as you see fit!

The “Christmas Star” is one of the most iconic images that comes to mind as we recall the Nativity of our Lord, though it’s actually connected to Epiphany, traditionally the “twelfth day of Christmas,” or Jan. 6. (This year, the church calendar celebrates Epiphany on Sunday Jan. 2.)

In “teachable moments” like this, make the Scriptural connection (Mt 2:1-12)! You’ll build a habit of seeking a deeper relationship to the Lord through his Word. Furthermore, in going to the Bible, we notice details in the text or items added through pious traditions and artistic license over the years. Are there “kings?” How many are there?

On the other hand, let’s not over-analyze and strip away the mystery and poetry of this incredible event. We sing in Psalm 19, “the heavens are telling the glory of God!” We ought to pause in wonder that all creation held its breath at the unfolding of the Incarnation, of God coming to dwell as one of us. We are in awe at the glorious angels and the humble shepherds and even the celestial bodies focusing all their attention on the tiny child.

The “Star of Bethlehem” has been the subject of centuries of speculation and research. For a good example from the Vatican Observatory, complete with a video, visit bit.ly/3scmfrq. What sort of phenomenon did the Magi notice? Without telescopes, planets appear much the same as stars, but it is obvious that they follow their own paths. Comets are amazing, but they were considered by most ancient people as portents of doom, not a sign of a newborn king.

It’s likely that the “star” was a convergence or conjunction of more than one planet and/or star. This would explain its gradual movement, over many weeks, and even the perception that “it came and stopped over the place where the Child was.” Remember this was months after Jesus’ birth; He was no longer in the manger, but in a “house.”

You may recall a similar convergence in December of 2020, when Jupiter and Saturn appeared very close to one another just before Christmas. But if you are looking for a bright “star” to point out to a younger child, Venus gives a good show in the western sky this month after sunset. An indispensable tool is the smart phone app “Star Chart.” Simply hold up your phone in any direction and it will tell you what you are seeing in the night sky. Or check earthsky.org to find what’s interesting overhead this month. Good luck, and Merry Christmas!

Pable is pastoral associate at St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Neenah.

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