Maybe it’s been too much “Big Bang Theory” for me, but I got interested enough in the International Space Station to do a little research about it. In so doing, I found that I could sign up for email notices whenever the ISS would be visible from our home in south central Wisconsin.
For about four or five nights in one week this month, Terry and I have made our way to our deck on the northwest side (that would be out the back door) of our house and we have watched. Right on schedule, the ISS has arisen out of the horizon and we have watched it dash across the sky and disappear. Each night the path of that arc has differed and each night the sky has varied from dusk to dark. But it has been fascinating enough that I’ve wanted to be out there watching whenever the sky was clear enough to see it. It is my understanding that the ISS is 240 miles above the earth and covers about 5 miles per second. Our views of it have lasted anywhere from two to four minutes.
Yes, the moon and the stars have long held a fascination for many, but there’s something about looking up and watching people move across the sky like that. It is easily visible with the naked eye. The ISS cannot be mistaken for a star. It is brighter than that. It might be mistaken for a high-flying airplane, but there are no blinking lights on it. Watching it has reminded me how small we are in the scheme of things, and has also reminded me of the ancient story of the Star of the East.
The Adler Planetarium in Chicago has, for several years, had available a film in one of what I call their “observatory theatres.” It’s called “A Mystery Star.” The point of the film is to examine what might have occurred in the night skies when the wise men, the magi, followed that star, first to Jerusalem and King Herod, and then on to Bethlehem where the star, according to the scripture, “stopped over the place where the child was.” In past years they have made the film just part of the regularly scheduled viewing. Now, however, it is only shown when groups of 15 or more call to schedule it.
Terry and I arranged to see the film a few years ago, just before Christmas, and had pre-arranged to join whatever group might have the showing. We were blessed and were able to get in.
I wish I had a transcript, but I have significant impressions of what I saw and heard. As we leaned back in our seats, it was as though the entire night sky was spread out before us. Scientists, astronomers, have been able to calculate what they believe the sky looked like in the Middle East in the days and months leading up to and passing the birth of Jesus. There are several theories as to what that “star” might have been. Perhaps a comet. Perhaps a meteor. But the film does a pretty sound job of eliminating those theories, again through scientific means. There were no comets at that time that would have been, say, of the visibility of a seldom seen Halley’s comet. A meteor or meteor shower would not have had the brightness or the long life necessary to guide the magi all the way from Babylon (modern-day Iraq) to Bethlehem.
But there was, at that time, a phenomenon occurring over several months that would have attracted the attention of these wise men.
Now, remember, the magi were astrologers. They made a lifetime of studying the stars and their movement. There was no GPS back in those days and no compass. If people traveled by day, they took well-known trade routes so they could see where others had gone before them. But if they were to travel by night, especially if they wanted to avoid the heat of the day or travel through a desert, they would have enough knowledge of formations in the sky to lead them where they wanted to go.
These guys were no ordinary travelers. It wasn’t that they just saw a star and started following it.
Over the course of a year or so, the planets of Jupiter and Saturn, in their own orbits, came close to lining up with one another. There were two or three times over that year that, as they made their loops around the sun and could be seen from earth, it would have appeared to any human eye that two stars, while not merging, were coming very close to one another. The brightness of each star would have appeared to have increased as they came closer together. Finally, as Jupiter and Saturn came almost directly in line with one another – so that to the human eye it appeared that they had completely become one, they were joined by a third planet, Venus. Now I haven’t studied astronomy much, but I do know that Venus is a really bright planet – what we generally think of as a star because it reflects so much light. Venus is easily identifiable by most of us and is often called the morning star because it is one of the last “lights” of the night to disappear as the sun rises.
Now, remember the wise men said to King Herod, “we have observed his star at its rising.” Some translations say, “we have observed his star in the East.”
What they saw after months and months of studying the night skies as these three planets came closer and closer in line with one another was the Star of the East.
To make all of this that much more interesting, before any of this started (in terms of the three planets lining up as they did to form what must have been a tremendous light), astrologers such as these magi had associated different parts of the sky, different constellations and such with different peoples. I tried to capture all this information in my head and couldn’t do it, but I do know there was a part of the sky, a group of stars and planets that had, for many years, been associated with the Hebrew people. Could it possibly have been a coincidence that as these three planets lined up together to form one bright star at its rising, that this star fell right into that part of the sky that students of the sky had already and long-associated with the Hebrew people?
That the star appeared to be so bright and was so clearly associated with the Hebrew part of the sky captured the attention of these three astrologers.
We do not know when they started out on their journey to follow that star. But the film suggests that they traveled for three or four months before they reached Jerusalem. Bethlehem is just down the road about five miles from that city of Herod.
The natural question arises, then, as to when it was that Jesus was actually born. The film stated that there are arguments for a spring birth; it concludes, however, that Jesus was probably born sometime in the fall. By the time the wise men arrived, Jesus would have been a toddler, no longer in that manger. His parents had probably found some kind of home in Bethlehem and when the star stopped, the scripture says “it stopped over the place where the child was.” Not where he lay, as the favorite song “Away in a Manger” suggests, but “where the child was.”
The scripture also says the wise men “when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Now that is interesting too! These guys were not Jews! Yet they were overjoyed. And the reason they were was because they knew the prophecies of the Old or First Testament. They knew the promises God had made to send a Messiah. And they had probably figured out – even though the Jews had not – that the Messiah that God intended to send would be for all the people, not just the Jews. The wise men weren’t called the wise men for nothing. They were wise because they had educated themselves not just about those things and beliefs that immediately surrounded them, but about all the people in the expanse of the world that was known at that time. They were wise because they were open-minded enough to know that there was an order to the skies and that God could use the skies to show even non-Jews that God had a plan and would fulfill it. They were wise because God gave them wisdom.
And what about that part about the star stopping? I don’t recall that the film addressed that at all, but it must have seemed to come to a halt enough that these magi could easily determine where the child was living. I don’t know that answer. I personally wonder if the three planets had stayed lined up long enough for the wise men to arrive and then stopped shining as brightly as the three planets moved further apart once again in their own orbits.
This is going to happen again in the future. Jupiter, Saturn and Venus are going to come into line with one another (at least from our human view on earth) hundreds of years from now. By then who knows what science will tell humankind about the coming of the Messiah.
When God created the earth and the heavens, the scripture tells us that all of it was created out of chaos. God created order out of chaos. God knew when those three planets were going to line up. God knew that there were astrologers in Babylon who studied the night skies and who would make the long journey to find the boy Jesus. God made the wise men wise. And they were wise enough that in the midst of their own joy they knew not to return to King Herod because he could not be trusted. And so they returned home by a different route.
If God can do all of that with three guys from the Middle East, what epiphany might God give us? We’re fast approaching fall, the more likely time for Jesus’ birthday. May our eyes be open to see the extraordinary in what we see as ho-hum – even a man-made space station hurtling through the skies.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. – Matthew 2:1-12