Vatican Corner 12-29-2019

More than 400 books have been written about the Star of Bethlehem and how its story could fit within modern astronomy. In a recent article in Evening Standard Magazine, Guy Consolmago, the director of the Vatican Observatory, an American Jesuit brother with a doctorate in planetary science, addressed the question “Can science explain the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem?” The Gospel of Matthew says the Wise Men were led to Bethlehem by a “star in the east.” Consolmago rules out the possibility that that star could have been a supernova – the last explosion of a dying star. A supernova, even one that could have exploded around the time of Christ’s birth would still be producing residual radio waves that would be observable today in the sky with radio telescopes. No such waves have been detected. Could the Star have been a comet? He says probably not, given that no one else in the ancient world recorded seeing a comet at that time, and that a comet was considered a warning sign of bad things to come, and not a good sign. He says astronomer’s favorite explanation for the Star of Bethlehem has to do with planetary conjunctions, where celestial bodies appear to be very close to each other as seen from earth. Calculations show that there was an unusual planetary grouping of exceptional closeness in 6 B.C. between Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Also in 3 B.C. Venus and Jupiter had a very close conjunction, and again in 2 B.C., where they appeared to be as one. Conjunctions would have been interesting to astronomers who may have been in Babylon an ancient center of astronomy. Archaeologists have found cuneiform tablets where the ancient observatory existed that speak of such a star. Those astronomers probably also knew about the prophecy concerning a coming Jewish Messiah. They could have interpreted such celestial conjunctions as the birth of a king in the land of the Jews and set out to find him. Modern astronomy offers planetary conjunctions as a possible scientific explanation for the Star of Bethlehem., but it is just a guess if their observation actually sent the Magi on their historic journey. Guy Consolmagno concluded in another article by saying “Actually, to me the most astonishing part of the story of the Magi is not that they would predict the birth of a king from the positions of the planets; any fortune teller could have done that kind of calculation. Nor is it that they’d pull up roots and travel afar to find out if they were right; we astronomers do that all the time. Instead, it’s that they would be able and willing to recognize the king they were seeking in the child they found in a manger.” Are we able and willing to recognize the child in the manger as well?