Thursday, 23 December 2010

We three kings of Orient are

Bearing gifts we traverse afar. Field and fountain, moor and mountain. Following yonder star.

Every year around this time people notice the brilliant ‘star‘ to the west just after sunset. For astronomers, it’s the appearance of the planet Venus, but for the average person it brings  questions. Was the Christmas Star real?

Two thousand years ago, astronomy and astrology were considered one and the same. The motions of the heavenly bodies were used to determine the events of history, and the fate of people’s lives. Of the various groups of priests and prophets of this period, those which commanded the most respect were the Magi – whose origins are not entirely clear. Known as ‘wise men’, speculation is that they were priests who relied on their knowledge of astronomy/astrology.

The ‘Star of Bethlehem’ was not just a localized event and could be observed by sky-watchers elsewhere in the world. Historical records and modern-day computer simulations indicate a rare series of planetary groupings, known as conjunctions, during the years 3 BC and 2 BC. This was one of the most remarkable periods in terms of celestial events in the last 3,000 years.

On the 1st August 3 BC the drama began to unfold with the planet Jupiter rising helically in the rays of dawn. On the 13 August Venus and Jupiter stood very close together in the sunrise. On the 18th, Mercury came out of the solar glare, and on September 1st, Mercury and Venus stood just 1/3rd degree apart in Leo.

These were dramatic events. The astronomers who were based at the Sippar Institute would have seen astrological significance in these signs. Essentially, Jupiter, the 'King' planet, had left the Sun, the 'Father of the Gods', to be conjoined with Venus, the 'Virgin Mother' in the constellation of Leo, which is the symbol for the tribe of Judah in Israel. Furthermore, Mercury, the 'Messenger of the Gods', had come from the Sun's presence to stand with Venus the Virgin Mother in the rays of the dawn.

Then on 14th September, 3 BC, and 17th February and 8th May, 2 BC, Jupiter the King planet stood next to Regulus the brightest star in Leo, which also represented Royalty. The crowning touch came ten months later, on 17 June 2 BC, as Venus and Jupiter joined up again in the constellation Leo. This time the two planets were so close that, without the use of our modern optical aids, they would have looked like one single, brilliant star. 

This was an unprecedented event. But that was not all. On 27th August in 2 BC there was a grand meeting of the planets In Virgo. Jupiter and Mars were only 1/7th degree apart and close at hand were Mercury and Venus standing together in the glare of the rising sun.

Then Jupiter left the other planets and moved westwards.  From mid-November, Jupiter the King planet went before the Magi in the sky towards Judea. Six weeks later as the Magoi checked the pre-dawn sky, Jupiter was on the Meridian due south of Jerusalem. It would have appeared directly over Bethlehem 65 degrees above the southern horizon.

And just at that time, the final event occurred. Jupiter had reached its furthest point westward, and no longer moved against the background. It  'stood over' Bethlehem. On that some day, the Sun was at its furthest point south for the year, and stood still in the heavens (for that is what the word 'solstice' means). Jupiter was again in the constellation Virgo.

Whatever the Star of Bethlehem was, it has had great impact on humankind. The Christmas Star involves symbols. Symbols are very importance in our lives. We live with and use them all the time. The Christmas Star is a powerful example of the symbolic importance of light.

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, this symbol has become associated with the time of year when the most powerful of all annual events takes place. At 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.