The celestial event that led the Magi to Jesus was an extremely rare and symbol-packed happening.
The conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter on December 21 is being billed as a “Christmas Star.” Because the two massive planets will appear to be just .1 degree apart, they will look to Earthlings like one big bright star, suggestive of the Star of Bethlehem that heralded Jesus’ birth.
But if Grant Mathews’ theory is correct, it pales in comparison to what happened in the sky 2,020-odd years ago, leading “wise men from the East” to seek out the newborn king.
Mathews, Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics and Cosmology and Director of the Center for Astrophysics at the University of Notre Dame, normally pursues research in the fields of the origin and evolution of matter in the universe.
But as an avocation, he has been pondering just what it was that was so significant in the skies around 6 B.C. that would be immortalized in the Gospel.
Mathews says that the Magi were Zoroastrian priests from Babylon, and that they understood that the constellation Aries referred to the land of Judea.
“There is evidence from the writings of the famous astronomer Claudius Ptolemy and also from the minting of Roman coins at the time that Aries was the constellation thought to be associated with the region of Judea,” he says. “This was particularly significant as Aries was also the constellation containing the Vernal Equinox at that time and an event that occurred in Aries would therefore imply the redemption and new life associated with the coming of spring.”
So a major planetary alignment in that particular part of the sky — where Aries was — would catch their attention.
“Interestingly, they had their own belief in a coming messiah, but their beliefs reflected a sense of determinism, which in their view was connected with the motions of the Sun, Moon, and planets in the sky,” Mathews said in a lecture he gave a few years ago at Notre Dame. “In their belief system, each constellation of the Zodiac was assigned to a different geographic region of influence. The location of the Sun, Moon, or planets in a constellation spoke of the character of a person born on that day. Especially if they were born in the geographic location associated with that constellation.”
Jupiter in retrograde
But what was the planetary alignment?
In a 2016 interview, Mathews noted that Michael Molnar put forward the hypothesis in the book The Star of Bethlehem that the Sun, Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn appeared in Aries, “with Venus in the next-door constellation Pisces along with Mercury and Mars on the other side in the next constellation Taurus.”
What’s also significant is that Jupiter was in retrograde, meaning that from Earth’s perspective, the planet was following a course contrary to the other planets, but that it then reversed course, after appearing to stop.
The Gospel of Matthew notes, “The star came to rest in the place where the child was.” Mathews explains that it was “coming to rest” in Aries — the constellation associated with Judea, where the Christ Child was.
“In this case the star coming to rest would have been the planet Jupiter (the symbol of a ruler) that literally stopped its retrograde motion and ‘came to rest’ in the sky during its motion among the stars. The other planets and the Sun and Moon being there would have strengthened this and held great significance to the Magi. That is why they would have arrived in Herod’s court to ask, “where is the newborn ruler of Judea?”
In the belief system of the Magi, this was a very unusual and special event. At that time Aries was the location of the “Vernal Equinox.” The Sun located there was a symbol of spring and redemption. The occurrence of the Moon and Jupiter there at the same time were the symbol of a special destiny of the new ruler. Saturn was the symbol of life. The other “attending” planets were holding this up as something special.
Mathews calculated that such an alignment would not occur again for more than 16,000 years, and even then would not be in the constellation of the Vernal equinox.
“I ran a calculation forward for 500,000 years and did not identify an alignment like this in the Vernal Equinox,” he said. “It was a truly unique event.”
It also intrigues Mathews that it was Zoroastrian priests who would have been the protagonists in the story.
“Today we would call them astrologers, but they had a somewhat different belief system than that of modern astrology,” he said in the interview. “This was a very ancient religion that had their own belief in a ‘trinity’ and a coming messiah. Zoroaster literally means ‘Shining light.’ They had a belief that the stars, planets, Sun and Moon were tokens of the divine. Frankincense to them was a symbol of ‘eternal light’ used in their ceremonies.”
No wonder, then, that that was one of the three gifts they brought Jesus.
“The most surprising thing to me about this story is that God would have timed His arrival to coincide with the belief system of a group of non-Hebrew astrologers,” Mathews said. “Indeed, astrology was forbidden in the Jewish belief system. This explains why no one in Herod’s court was aware of ‘His star in the East’ of which the Magi spoke. What was God intending to say?”
Mathews believes that the answer might be two-fold. “One is that this is symbolic of the gift of redemption to all peoples brought by the Christ child,” he said. ”The second is something of a personal message to humankind. As one who studies the heavens myself, I can somewhat empathize with the Magi in that even in modern science, as was the case of those ancient astronomers, we explore the heavens in search of evidence of creation and the creator. And then, as today, God is a rewarder of those that seek him with all of their heart. I believe that the Magi sought with all of their resources and being for evidence of the creator of all things in the heavens. And that God chose to reward that.”