Christmas Nativity Star of Bethlehem

Christmas Nativity Star of Bethlehem illustration of the star over the desert pointing the way to Jesus birth place

Background Text: Numbers 24:17, Micah 5:2

Devotional Text: Matthew 2:1-9

The birth of Jesus will soon be celebrated at churches and by people and organizations around the world. We will read the Christmas story surrounding his birth as well as the story of the wise men from the east who followed the star to the king of the Jews.

Known as the Star of Bethlehem, for centuries Christian scholars and astronomers have been trying to figure out just what the star could have been. Today, it is commonly referred to as the Christmas Star.

When I was a child, each year I would attend a nearby planetarium program at Christmastime that featured a talk on the Star of Bethlehem. The host of the program first projected scenes of Mary and Joseph heading for Bethlehem, and then showed a silhouette view of the couple with child in the manger.

From that background, he went on to show the three wise men on their camels and in the distance, a bright shining star.

He read from Matthew 2, about the travels of the Magi, their meeting with King Herod, and the continuance of their journey.

We learned from Herod’s ministers about a Scripture from Micah 5:2 that referred to the birth of the ruler of Israel to be born in Bethlehem. The Matthew 2 Scripture tells us that the Magi continued in that direction, being guided by the star.

Next, the silhouette visions were gone and were replaced by the stars in the sky as they would have appeared in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth.

We were told of various possibilities at that time in history that could maybe explain the unusual star in the sky. Could it have been a supernova? Perhaps a comet crossing the sky? Or even the alignment of planets appearing as a large star in the sky?

One-by-one, the show’s host explained to us why these didn’t fit. Either the date wasn’t right or the movement of a comet didn’t coincide, or a supernova would not appear as a moving star.

Even if it were the alignment of planets that made them appear larger, according to Scripture found in Matthew 2, the star was first seen in the east before the Magi set out. It took them months to travel to Jesus, who was living in a house and was toddler age by then.

The special alignment of planets would not have lasted that long.

So, our host came back to the question: What was the Star of Bethlehem? No one knows. It was foretold in Old Testament Scripture in Numbers 24:17, which spoke about a star coming out of Jacob (who was renamed Israel in Genesis 32:28), and added this: “a scepter will rise out of Israel.”

Micah 5:2 gives us the place of the Messiah’s birth: “Bethlehem, from you shall come forth for me one who rules in Israel ... from the ancient of days.”

And then the New Testament Scripture found in Matthew tells of a star rising in the east, signifying a Jewish king would be born, and showing the way to Jesus.

My friends and I loved the planetarium program. We attended annually until the planetarium stopped showing it for a while (later, they brought it back). It helped us to understand another piece of the wonderment surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ.

The Jewish nation had been waiting for hundreds of years for a Savior, an anointed one by God, who would come to them offering salvation, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

As we read the Gospels we find that Jesus was this person sent by God to offer hope, to teach us how to live in righteousness with one another, to be forgiving and to show God’s love even to our enemies.

This year, the news is alive with the return of the Christmas Star. It is an alignment of the orbit of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, even though they remain millions of miles apart. Their orbits will line up and for a brief time will be visible as a double large planet seen as one bright star in the sky.

We are told the closeness of this alignment happens every 800 years. Going back through time, it would not line up with Christ’s birth. The last time it was visible was in 1226 or 1223, depending on which article you read. It was also visible around the year 420 and in the 300s BC.

This planetary alignment is thought to resemble what the Star of Bethlehem may have looked like. The timing is right, at the Christmas season. This year’s event is supposed to happen on Dec. 21 and will be in the sky until Christmas.

Astronomers tell us it will become visible just after sunset on Dec. 21 and can be seen in the southwestern sky for approximately 20 minutes before it sinks below the horizon (or 45 minutes, again depending on what you read and where you live).

It’s not surprising that some astronomers think the two aligned planets could have been the Star of Bethlehem, because planets can change their orbits, and even appear to stop, when viewed with the naked eye from Earth. It is an illusion of the their orbital journeys.

However, in the time of Jesus, although Jupiter was in the sky, the other planet was not Saturn, it was Venus. Being a considerably smaller planet, it would not have been bright enough to outshine any of the others.

This year we do have a unique opportunity, as long as the evening sky is clear, to see something quite spectacular. Will it look like the Star of Bethlehem? Will it at least give us a glimpse of what was seen centuries ago? Time will tell. Some of my friends plan to drive with me to a dark area just before the sun sets to hopefully see this wonder.

Merry Christmas, and may God’s light shine upon you!

The Rev. Kathy Brumbaugh is the pastor of Schenevus United Methodist Church in Schenevus, New York.

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