The Epiphany Star
Friday was Epiphany, the festival of the Church Year which commemorates the revelation of the Christ Child to the world. as represented by the Wise Men. And no, we actually don't know how many of them there were. The tradition with which most of us are familiar say that there were three; the earliest Christian tradition says that there were twelve. Matthew just doesn't say. Their names were probably not Casper, Melchior, and Balthazar, and it is unlikely that one was African, one European, and one Asiatic, as beautiful and symbolically meaningful as that notion might be.
Nor were the Wise Men kings- or if they were, we aren't told that by the Bible. What we are told is that they were magi- a common name for followers of the religious leader Zoaraster, likely from Mesopotamia. Of course, the Bible doesn't make it clear whether the Wise Men were in the East when they first saw the star, or whether the Star was in the East. And the situation is confused further by the fact that the Greek can also be understood as "we have seen His star at its rising." Still, Mesopotamia seems the best bet, especially given the use of the word "magi."
Mesopotamia is the seat of one of the most ancient of Earth's stargazing civilizations. The ancient Babylonians had a knowledge of the heavens which is astounding. Of course, they made no distinction between astronomy (the scientific study of the heavens) and astrology (the superstition and pseudo-science which manifests itself in the horoscope). It was probably the astrological significance of that star which brought them to Bethlehem- and the imagined utility of stargazing in predicting and interpreting the future which turned their gaze skyward in the first place.
Could the Star have been miraculous? Sure. Is there any reason to think that it was a natural phenomenon rather than a miracle? Only the fact that there is no reason why it should not have been a natural phenomenon. God works through these more often than through overt intervention in natural phenomena, and miracles can be matters of timing as well as the special creation of one-time-only stars.
It seems that within the proper historical time frame, there was a remarkable series of conjunctions between Venus and Jupiter, the planets which in ancient Babylonian astronomy governed birth and kingship, respectively. Occasionally, a star also associated with kingship- Regulus- was also involved.
Now, a conjunction is the apparent drawing together of two or more objects in the sky as seen from Earth. Sometimes objects draw so close that they seem to be merging. Jupiter and Venus are two of the brightest objects in the sky even in normal times; a picture of a 1999 conjunction between the two (presumably not as close as the one the Wise Men saw) at twilight can be seen here. Could these have been the Epiphany star?
It begins to seem more likely when one reflects that the first of these would have taken place in the constellation Leo, seen by the ancient Mesopotamians as the constellation governing Judea. Given the significance of the objects and the location of this first conjunction, it would have given rise to an obvious question: "Where is He Who is born King of the Jews?"
Contrary to what many assume, the star did not remain visible throughout the journey of the magi from Mesopotamia. Matthew writes of it appearing again after the visit to Herod's court and even seems to hint that it might not have been visible for some time. And the conjunction reappeared- usually Venus and Jupiter alone- from time to time throughout a sufficient period to have easily guided the travelers to Bethlehem, and then back home again. Thus, the argument that the star was a comet, which would have been continuously visible for long periods, is not necessary and becomes unlikely when it is borne in mind that in both Mesopotamian and Hebrew cultures comets were harbingers of chaos and destruction, not heralds of joyful tidings!
Every December for seventy-five years, the Adler Planetarium back home in Chicago presented the sky show "Star of Wonder," which presented the theory in all its fascinating detail. Sadly, the show is now retired. Of course, we have no way of knowing whether or not the theory that was proposed in "Star of Wonder" is correct. But it's tantalizingly plausible, and I'd like to think so. I'm especially attracted to this glimpse of God working with His creation from within, in much the same way He chose to do by becoming part of it.
Here is a simulation, made by an Israeli amateur astronomer using the RedShift 5 software, of the conjunction between Jupiter and Venus on June 17, 2 B.C. This site gives more information on the theory.
By the way... I've often wondered what Mary said when Jesus was a boy and ran out of the house without closing the door behind Him....