By Edgardo Rosado/Science for the Church
It was January 5, 1975, the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany. My big brother and I could hardly contain the excitement of the impending visit of the Three Magi (or Three Kings), a central Christmas tradition in the Latinx community.
With shoeboxes in hand, we followed our mom and joined the multitude of children selecting the most delectable blades of grass to nourish the camels on their long toy-delivery journey. With shoeboxes filled, we returned home and placed them under our Christmas tree together with a bowl of cool water for the camels. We also placed our carefully crafted letters detailing our Three Kings Day wishes. Unwillingly, we were ushered to our bedrooms to sleep and dream of the arrival of the Magi Kings. It was still dark when my brother crept out of his bed and shouted with glee, announcing the arrival of the Three Magi as I joined him in our living room, relishing the promise of these desired gifts.
The Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Three Magi (i.e., traditionally known as Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar) to the Christ Child, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In Matthew chapter 2, the biblical narrative affirms that the Magi arrived at Jerusalem after seeing Christ’s “star in the east” and deciding to follow it to worship the newborn King. After an ill-fated detour at Herod’s palace, the Magi followed the star to Bethlehem, to the house where the Christ child was and worshiped him, presenting him with their gifts.
Looking for Answers in the Skies
Grant Mathews explains that the Magi were priests of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. As part of their worship of Ahura Mazda, their deity, they practiced astrology, which was closely related to what we call the science of astronomy today. They were diligent students of stars, celestial patterns, and other heavenly phenomena. When they saw this new, unusual star rising from the east in a westward leading motion, they knew it was an omen foretelling the birth of the “king of the Jews” and followed it to pay their homage to this new King (Matthew 2:2).
As we know, Galileo Galilei’s refining of the refracting mirror in 1609 provided more accurate tools for studying celestial movements. Since then, many hypotheses have been advanced to explain the Star of Bethlehem. In his book The Star of Bethlehem, Sir Patrick Moore highlights several possible astronomical candidates to solve this mystery such as a shooting star, a comet, or a supernova. However, as Michael Bakich suggests, even the most developed theories cannot provide a definitive answer about the event that motivated the Magi’s journey.
Dr. Stan Dermott and Debra L. David suggest that a shooting star is not a possible candidate because it would be hard to explain how the Three Wise Men could follow it for an extended period. Another theory proposes Halley’s comet as a possibility. However, as Mathews points out, even when the detailed records kept by Chinese astronomers of celestial events going back to 1,000 B.C. show several astronomical phenomena within the time frame of the birth of Jesus, we cannot affirm that the star of Bethlehem was Halley’s comet. Moreover, ancients associated these celestial events as bad omens, and the Magi would not have followed them.
...The Star of Bethlehem – Sir Patrick Moore looks at several astronomical events and provides answers trying to solve the mystery of the star of Bethlehem.
...“What King of Astronomical Marvel was the Star of Bethlehem?” – Greg Cootsona interviews an astronomer for Christianity Today about the Star of Bethlehem.
...“Science: What the ‘Wise Men’ Saw” – Mark Weisenmiller talks to astronomers and experts about possible explanations for the event witnessed by the Wise Men.
...“Royal Beauty Bright” – Grant Mathews, Notre Dame Astrophysicist, researches the Christmas star.
...“What the Magi Had in Common with Scientists” – Roger Barlow provides a scientific explanation of the events surrounding the celestial phenomenon presented by the Gospel of Matthew.
...“What the Magi Mean to Christmas” – This is a sermon preached by John MacArthur around the meaning of familiar scenes around the Advent of Christ.
...“What Do the Magi and the Dead Sea Scrolls Have in Common?” – In this video, Dr. Michael S. Heiser provides a detailed explanation of the underlying revelatory understanding surrounding the divine King that was to be born in Bethlehem.
Considering Other Significant Events
In Royal Beauty Bright, Mathews suggests that a significant event could explain the appearance of the star followed by the Magi within the time of the birth of the Christ child (i.e., between 8 and 4 B.C.). On April 17, 6 B.C., the Sun, Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Vernal Equinox aligned in the Aries constellation. Beyond the unusual nature of this event, Mathews underscores the significance of this planetary alignment for Zoroastrianism.
...The Magi would have understood the alignment of the sun as foretelling the birth of an important person in the Judean region.
...The inclusion of the moon foretold the unique destiny of the person that included his appointed death.
...Jupiter and Saturn spoke of a powerful ruler who is the giver of life.
...The Vernal Equinox was understood as an omen of new life.
...The very nature of this planetary alignment presupposes the attention of Zoroastrian astrologers and their readiness to follow this sign.
...Roger Barlow highlights the triple planetary conjunction observed by other astrologers in the year 7 B.C.
...The dramatic celestial display of Jupiter and Saturn converging on in the Pisces constellation provided a spectacular backdrop that could explain the appearance of the Magi detailed in the Gospel of Matthew.
...Barlow explains these elements were intimately linked in astrology to royalty, the advent of the Messiah, and with the Jewish people.
While we might not ever have a definitive answer about the event that led the Three Kings, there is enough scientific data to support the idea of a God that can use physical phenomena to accomplish his salvific purposes. Just as these Zoroastrian priests looked at the skies to find answers to the most perplexing and essential questions of life, we can still look at God’s creation and his revelation to guide us to his perfect light. John Henry Hopkins, Jr.’s song speaks of a “star of wonder” imbued with “royal beauty bright” intended to guide us to a more profound revelation of the Christ child.
As you follow the Eastern Star of Epiphany, we hope his kingly splendor will transform your life.
That January 6, 1975, my six-year-old self trembled with the expectation of the gifts brought by these mythical Magi Kings on that bright morning of Epiphany. However, I would soon come to know that these gifts were actually given by my loving parents. While I fondly remember the wooden toolbox with real, blue-handled hand tools (that I used to cut through the legs of our family’s sofa), the gift I cherish the most is that of Christ’s light steeped in our traditions that were instilled in my heart and mind by my loving family. Today, I urge you to follow Christ’s shining star.
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Strengthening the church through engaging with science
We believe that churches are strengthened by engaging with science. Science for the Church looks to a day when science accompanies Scripture as a tool for discipleship, catalyzes expressions of worship, illustrates sermons, elucidates biblical teachings, and supplements theological wisdom for the life of the world. We even wonder if wrestling with science might draw some of the “nones” (those who affiliate with no religion) and the “dones” (those who have left the church) to Christian communities once again.