Few celestial bodies are more auspicious than is the Star of Bethlehem in minds and hearts of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians. So as the challenging year 2020 comes to its end it is a thing of wonder that “the Christmas Star” will once again be seen after an absence of 794 years.
The date is tomorrow December 21, the winter solstice when the “gas giants” Jupiter and Saturn line up from the vantage point of stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere in a way that has not happened since the Middle Ages. Around 45 minutes after sunset you will be able to see the planets overlap creating a beam of bright light in the South Western sky.
Areas where there is light pollution should be avoided. The advice from astronomers is that the light should be visible to the naked eye in high places but that telescope watchers may also be able to see not just the two planets but also some of their moons. Saturn has 82 moons and Jupiter 79.
Look out for the brightest area in the night sky to find your bearings. The process of approximation has been happening for the last 3 weeks with a bright white Saturn now appearing to be a satellite of the fainter yellowish Jupiter despite the fact that the planets will actually be more than 450 million miles (730 million kilometres) apart; further from each other than they are from the Earth.
Similar conjunctions happen every 19.8 years but this week we will be able to see a close alignment not seen since the 4th March 1226. The next time that these planets will appear so close will be on the 15th March 2080 and then again in 2400.
In 1614 the German astronomer, mathematician, and astrologer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) wrote that he thought that the ‘star of Bethlehem’ that guided the three Wise Men to the stable where Baby Jesus had just been born could have been a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. The “Star” makes a fleeting but highly memorable appearance in the Gospels (Matthew 2:9:
“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them stopped over the pace where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and the bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route”.
The director of the Vatican Observatory Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno says that whatever the Star of Bethlehem was, the upcoming astronomical event can allow people time to step outside to observe the beauty of creation and to realize that God is greater than any planetary dance, especially as the world continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic, confront political divisiveness and experience social ills.
On the 6th January each year in Gibraltar and in towns and villages throughout Spain and further afield, this event is market by so-called Three Kings Cavalcades which are always led by a representation of the Star of Bethlehem. This New Year the pandemic has led to the cancellation of this popular event so the appearance of the Star in the night sky after 794 years has added poignancy for believers.