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For most people, Christmas means Santa Claus, food, drink and presents, but behind this is another image, the image of a stable with a star shining above it. For Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity. There's a lot that could be said on that subject, but this entry will concentrate on one aspect, the star. What was the star and why did the Wise Men follow it to the stable? Is there a rational explanation or can we just dismiss it as yet another inexplicable miracle?
The Story of the Star and the Wise Men
The story of the star is told in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2. We learn that Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying:
Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.
From Jerusalem, they were directed to Bethlehem, as the prophecies had predicted that the new king would be born there. The star went before them and came down over the place where the child lay. They gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
A Rational Explanation
What can this mean? Christians, when questioned, will often say 'it was a miracle and we have no hope of understanding it'. But even an omnipotent God can do miracles using natural means, so a logical explanation would not go amiss. For those who don't believe in the omnipotent God, it is all the more important.
Chris de Burgh in his song 'A Spaceman Came Travelling' claimed that a visiting spaceman came down in his glowing ship and this is what the Wise Men saw. While de Burgh did not intend this seriously, he is not the only person to have claimed it, as everything seems to get blamed on aliens these days.
A supernova is a giant star which has come to the end of its life and dies in a massive explosion. Such events are rare: there have been only six recorded in our galaxy in the last 1,000 years, but such a stellar death could produce a very bright light which anybody familiar with the stars would recognise as something out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was one of these that the Wise Men saw. This theory was proposed by Arthur C Clarke, the science fiction writer, in his short story The Star. This theory does not explain why the Wise Men saw the star in the east, decided to come west to Palestine and later followed the star south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
A good possibility is that the star was a comet. These 'hairy stars' were generally recognised as portents of great events. We have no record of any such comet, but records of the skies at the time are not common anyway. A comet in the right place could easily be interpreted as a sign of a new king.
Many modern sightings of UFOs through trees are eventually traced to sightings of the planet Venus, which can be extremely bright in the right conditions. Perhaps the Wise Men saw Venus and mistook it for a sign?
This would seem to indicate that they were stupid men rather than wise ones. Any wise person living in a pre-electric era would be able to recognise Venus and would not be at all surprised by it.
The Wise Men could have been wise in the arcane art of astrology. The sign in the sky could have been something far more complex than a single star, something more on the lines of Mercury rising in Pisces while Mars and Venus were in the house of Capricorn. Such a combination of events would not have been easily explainable to the uninitiated, and the Wise Men would have been reluctant to reveal their secret magic to others, so they would have summarised it as 'we have seen his star'. A hard one to disprove!
A Conjunction of Two Planets
This sounds the least spectacular, but it's plausible. The planet Jupiter has long been a symbol of kinghood. The appearance of Jupiter very close to Saturn in the night sky would certainly be interpreted as a sign concerning kings. Such a conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn is rare, but happened not once but twice in the year 7 BC. Perhaps the first conjunction told the Wise Men about the event, while the second told them where to go from Jerusalem to find the child.
A Genuine Star over the Stable
What, a glowing ball of gas millions of miles in diameter?
Well, a really tiny star
OK, a small glowing ball over the stable sounds more reasonable, although at that size, it wouldn't have been big enough to support fusion, so it wouldn't have glowed very brightly.
Perhaps the aliens wasn't such a bad theory after all...