As I knelt down on my hands and knees beneath the altar in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, I caught my reflection in the silver, 14-pointed star that marks the birthplace of Jesus.
Then it hit me: I’m actually here! This is the place! This is where God and humanity converged 2,000 years ago. This is where “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us!”
That’s when the tears flowed down my face, dripping onto the star, mixing with the tears of millions of pilgrims who had preceded me, as mine will mix with those who follow.
I wanted to stay longer underneath the altar, but there were other pilgrims in Bethlehem that day. I lay flat and kissed the star, as is tradition, but I felt so euphoric that I got up too quickly and bumped my head on the undersurface of the altar, causing nervous laughter from the other pilgrims in line and their too-late warning, “Watch your head!”
Leaving the dimly lit church, I stepped into blinding bright sunlight, a perfect metaphor for Christ as “the light who has come to cast away the darkness.”
The silver star that marks the manger has seen a number of custodians over the centuries, but the fascination with the “Star” that guided the magi to Jesus remains as high, if not higher than ever, since Matthew recorded his version of Jesus’ birth story.
Chronographers and astronomers have taken Matthew’s story of the star and have tried to work backwards to determine as accurately as possible the exact date of the birth of Christ. The closest anyone has come is within two or three years – 6 to 4 B.C.
But what about the star? Could it have been a meteor or a comet or a nova (exploding star)? Was it a physical or a supernatural event? God is certainly capable of supernatural events.
Johannes Kepler, whose mathematical reputation was equal to that of Galileo, proposed in 1614 that the “star” was the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, but Kepler did not have the tools to prove the detailed calculations that he proposed. A “conjunction” occurs when two or more planetary or solar system bodies are aligned in their orbits and appear to us to be close to each other. The combined light is brighter than that of the individual bodies.
In order to determine if a conjunction occurred, one must be able to mathematically wind back the solar system clock 2,000 years – a difficult task in the 17th century, but a piece of cake with modern-day technology. Using computers, scientists have determined that planetary conjunctions occurred once in 2 B.C. and twice in 6 B.C.
Science might never achieve an accurate explanation for the “star,” but it sure is fun to use the magnificent intellect that God has given us.
Whether the star was physical, supernatural or both will continue to fascinate humans as we consider the “how” (science) and the “why” (religion) of our creation. No matter how the star appeared and guided the magi, it is the one it pointed to who is important.
The star leads to the most significant event in human history – God dwelling among us! The star points to the manger, where God offered himself to the world as a helpless, vulnerable baby. God is dwelling among us, so that once and for all we may know his love and light.
The Rev. Joe Bowden, the assisting priest at Church of the Holy Comforter in Martinez, is chief of general surgery at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center and professor emeritus of surgery at the Medical College of Georgia.