Stars of Christmas Light Our Lives
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
December 24, 1997
I have been dealing with the question of the identity of the Star of Bethlehem for all of my professional life. Having done so, I want, now, to share with my readers some feelings about this topic.
In a way, I have become tired of the subject. I find it interesting to note that scientists and others have spent so much time speculating about what the star might have been. The evidence that there was such a star is, after all, very limited and it is not at all what we could call scientific evidence. The few passages in the New Testament are often treated in these speculations as valid scientific data. Based upon this sparse information, combined with guesswork about the Magi and others reported to have been involved, conclusions have been drawn to pick out the most likely natural events that could explain the biblical passages. This is strange scientific behavior, since most of the New Testament record can not be scientifically validated. In the days and location when it was written there were no records of the type that we can rely upon as being historically accurate. Nor were they brought down to us with consistent archival care. So, how much sense does it make for us to use the biblical passages as scientific data?
I certainly agree that the question of the identity of the star is an interesting one. It has great meaning to a large number of people, and it would be nice if we could identify the "star" with reasonable certainty. We can specify possible explanations, but none of them can be called the perfect answer. As one who has spent much of my professional life teaching in planetariums, it has always bothered me to see that no matter how cautiously we state the information in our programs, many people emerge from them thinking that science can identify what the Star of the Magi actually was, and they believe that the answer came through application of rigorous science. One study also indicates that since such programs involve astrological interpretations, people emerge from them believing more firmly in astrology than they did when they went into the programs. This is exactly contrary to what planetarium program producers wish to have happen. Noting these outcomes, we seem to have unintentionally deceived audiences with our shows. We have given them the best information we could, based upon scientific knowledge about natural events that might explain the skimpy scriptural information, and we have stated this in careful language, but too many people do not seem to listen carefully, so they carry away conclusions that are firmer and different than intended.
Please do not misunderstand me. I still have strong and good feelings about the Christmas Star question. I just think that the situation produces somewhat different results than are desired. I have thought a lot about this, and I want, now, to share with you what I personally believe is most interesting of all about this topic.
The Christmas Star involves symbols. Symbols are very importance in our lives. We live with and use them all the time. Words on printed pages are symbols, and so are spoken ones. We are constantly interpreting the symbols of words, based upon our accumulated understanding of them, and each of us carries somewhat different interpretations. It is so with all the symbols around us, in addition to language. Our interpretations result largely from those of others, handed down to us through the ages.
For me, the most interesting of all symbols are those drawn from the natural realm, those relating to the earth, and especially those relating to the sky. Consider the importance of phenomena such as day, night, lightning, rain, rainbows, Sun, Moon, planets and stars. Just think of all the symbolic ways these get worked into our thinking, speaking and feelings. Contrasts between night and day, rain and shine, cold and warmth come into our language in many and diverse contexts. So, what does this have to do with the Star of Bethlehem? The "Star of Wonder," whatever it was, was light in the sky, and it has become a marvelous symbol.
For me, the Christmas Star is a powerful example of the symbolic importance of light. Light, and darkness, are found in symbolic form in all religions as well as in everyday thinking. The break of day is a "new beginning," the "renewal of life," the "resurrection," and the daily opportunity of our lives. Coming of night is not only darkness, it tends to represent "death," "danger," and a time to close our eyes and even our minds in slumber. Fearful of the night, our dreams replace reality until the rising of another day. Similar to sunrise, the rising of a "new star" is the announcement of something to know about, to celebrate, often symbolizing the coming into the world of something, brilliant, wonderful, and important. So, it was written in the Book of Numbers, 24th chapter, 17th verse, "...there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel..." In addition, we can read in Isaiah 60:3, "And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising." Such prophecies were constantly under consideration for fulfillment, and many believe that they were. In the words of Matthew, chapter 2, verses 1-10, "...there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east...When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy." It was expected that the prophecy be fulfilled, and Matthew said that it was.
So, we can, indeed, speculate on the identity of the Star. It might have involved astrological interpretations of the movements of planets by astrologer priests from Persia, the Magi. Even though we have not found any firm evidence of a bright nova or supernova occurring about the right time, it might have been such an event. Remember that we do not have really good records from anywhere on earth for such events that long ago. Or, some prefer to believe that the star was supernatural and not explainable by science.
What we know for sure is that the Star of Bethlehem is a beautiful example of light as a symbol of the coming into this world of something pure, an example to emulate that brings with it teachings, something that gives us hope that can inspire living by firm values that give direction and meaning to life. No wonder it is so frequently portrayed in great works of art in every form: music, poetry, drama, sculpture and painting.
For those of us residing in the northern hemisphere, this stellar symbol has become associated with the time of year when the most powerful of all annual events takes place. With the winter solstice we have reached the end of diminishing sunlight, shortening days, and waning warmth and the beginning of the time when light grows as days get longer, brighter and warmer. What a glorious time to celebrate! For those who look to the symbol of the Christmas Star as vindicating forgiveness of sin, resurrection and life everlasting, the added fact that we have made another trip around the Sun resulting in more pleasant days ahead brings into focus all the symbols of light, warmth and life. What better could we expect from a symbolic star, whatever it might or might not have been.
Looking around we can, indeed, find several natural events that can be thought about as fulfillment of prophecy and explanation of the Star that shone over the town when Jesus was born. Pick the one you like best and enjoy it to the fullest. This Christmas Eve, look to the southwest in the evening and notice the planets standing there: brilliant Venus outshines all the others; dim red Mars is just left of Venus; still farther left is bright yellow Jupiter; Saturn is farther left, well up toward the south. If you wish to get out a pair of binoculars, you can see Uranus slightly above Mars. What a gathering of planets we have for our 1997 Christmas stars to remind us of speculations about what was seen over Bethlehem a couple of thousand years ago. What powerful symbols of light for wondering about the past, exploration into the future, and for reminding us about what is important in our lives.