By now you no doubt have heard about it: if you look to the southwest night skies this evening just after sunset, you’ll see a heavenly display that no one on earth has viewed since 1226. Scientists call it the Great Conjunction and it reminds us just how relative everything really is. For though Jupiter and Saturn will still be roughly 460 million miles apart, to observers here on the third rock from the sun it will look like they have snuggled up, separated by only inches, or just one fifth of the moon’s angular diameter.
To be sure, by our way of reckoning eight hundred years itself is a pretty long time. For in 1226 Genghis Khan was still ruling Mongolia, Francis of Assisi died, and in Paris, workers had just started building a brand-new cathedral known as Notre Dame. But on the other hand, though the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn line up about every twenty years, the two planets won’t look this close again until 2080. And if you want to see the conjunction on a Christmas Day itself, you’ll need to figure out how to hang around another eight centuries to 2874.
For many, of course, this Great Conjunction would seem to be an explanation for the Christmas Star referenced in both the gospels of Luke and Matthew. The former book, for instance, tells us the Star of Bethlehem appeared unto the shepherds nearby the little town on the night when Jesus was born. And in turn, Matthew records that some six hundred miles to the east Persian astronomers known as Magi saw the same conjunction and traveled to Israel to find out what it meant.
If that is so, however, scholars have some ‘splaining to do about just exactly when the birth of Jesus took place. For using the death of Herod the Great as a chronological clue puts the Nativity somewhere between 7 and 3 BC, though many now question when Herod died as well. And though there were three different times when Saturn and Jupiter got closer in 7 B.C., none of them would have been all that remarkable, and certainly not nearly as dramatic as what will appear overhead tonight.
When you project the night skies backwards, though, astronomers believe that in 2 B.C. there was indeed a conjunction where the planets were so close to one another that they may have looked to those on the earth like a single spot of light. Yet even that would not be quite the dramatic imagery that much of Christian artwork over the years has depicted, with a divine spotlight shining down on a wooden barn which, given the lack of wood in the area, was probably a cave instead.
In the end, thus, we are left with as many questions as answers. But if the celestial performance this week causes us to at least wonder a bit about the Bethlehem skies that night, then I say it’s worth it to go out and at least look up a little. For it’s not the stars that really matter; it’s the One who made them that ought to captivate us.
The psalmist said it best perhaps: “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” (Psalm 19.1) So should it really surprise anyone that when God put His rescue mission for all of us into effect, landing at Ground Zero in Bethlehem, those same heavens would not explode a little in both anticipation and joy?
Maybe we should do the same.