message of the Christmas Star:
The Star of Bethlehem
Christmas is a holy day in the Christian tradition, it has become even
more than a Christian holiday. The Christmas season has become infused
into our culture everywhere we look. At this time of year, it really doesn’t
matter whether you’re Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Buddhist. During
the deepening of winter, the Christmas spirit permeates the
The story of the Christmas Star is shrouded in mystery. There are things that are illusion and there are things that are real. We’re taught through religious metaphor that something very magical happened at the time of this star. There was a signal from God, a brilliance in the heavens that stopped people in their tracks. It signified the Holy of Holies. As we look back through historical records, however, we realize that no one even noticed this awesome event. No one, that is, except for some Persian magi. The Chinese have been avid sky watchers for thousands of years. They recorded comets and novae, yet they didn’t notice anything in the sky at that time. Other cultures didn’t record anything either. So the question is, if there was a magical star really shining in the heavens, why didn't everyone notice?
The Bible tells us that three wise men were present to witness the birth of the baby Jesus. Newer translations correctly identify these three cosmically invited guests as astrologers. The word magi has the same origination as the word magician, not to be confused here with a modern stage magician or entertainer. Magi is used interchangeably with wise men. Just as rabbi is the title of a Jewish teacher, so magus is the title of a Zoroastrian priest.
Far to the east of Israel is the magical, mystical land of India. Between India and the Holy Land is an area that was, in ancient times, called Chaldea. Chaldea was the home of a great and ancient sacred knowledge called astrology. Chaldea became Babylon, which later became Persia. Five centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Zoroaster brought a new religion to this land. Zoroastrianism played a significant role in this ancient world. Zoroastrian priests were astronomer-priests. The ancient Persian temples, ziggurats, were astronomical observatories. In these observatory-temples, the ancient Persian priests spent the nights watching the divine magic unfold. Around the time of the Jesus’ birth, Zoroastrian magi undoubtedly practiced astrology. They carefully watched the movements of peculiar stars that seemed to wander through the zodiac. These wandering stars, that we now call planets, helped them better understand events on earth.
The Ancient Astronomical Mindset
To reconstruct the mindset of several thousand years ago, we must look at the word star. Stars are hot gases, like our Sun. There are many kinds of stars, including neutron stars, red giants, blue dwarfs, black holes, binary stars, quasars and pulsars. Stars are basically nuclear reactors, giving off light energy, as does our own yellow Sun. What kind of star was the Christmas Star? As represented in literature and in illustrations, the Christmas Star has always been shown as some sort of brilliant supernova. Stars have been historically recorded to be so bright that they were even seen during daylight hours! But the Christmas star was not recorded like that. Remember, it was not observed outside of Persia. A star was anything in the sky that gave off light.
To the ancient scientists who looked up, the planets were stars. Today, we think of a planet as a body that goes around the Sun, but to the ancients, the word planet meant “star that wanders.” Some stars wandered. Some stars were fixed. But they were all stars.
The astrological metaphor in ancient times was deeply ingrained. Everything was integrated and connected. The things that happened in the heavens corresponded to the same events on Earth. The astronomer-priests were considered among the wisest people of their time because they knew how to read the signs in the divine realms of the night sky.
The original Aramaic text quotes the magi as saying they had seen “his star in heliacal rising.” Heliacal rising means that it is the last star that is seen in the sky before the Sun rises and makes the other stars invisible in the brightness of daylight. This was a common observation technique for astrologers of those days.
In astrology, the slowest moving planets are the most serious of the celestial wanderers. Slower moving planets have the most impact upon earthly events. The ancient astrologers observed the apparent movement of the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn against the backdrop of the fixed stars in the zodiac. All these wanderers were visible to the naked eye. It would be centuries before the telescope would bring additional planets into view.
The greatest planetary rhythm that was observable to the ancient astronomer-priest
was the rhythm of the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction.
A conjunction occurs when two planets line up on their individual journeys
around the Sun. The Jupiter/Saturn conjunction is a regular planetary
rhythm that happens every 20 years. However, because of its peculiar nature,
it actually jumps from astrological sign to sign with great regularity.
Although Jupiter and Saturn align every twenty years, the movement of
this alignment through the zodiac is a centuries-long process. It is the
combination of astrologically rare events that created the Star of Bethlehem.
Christ is a Greek word for king. A king was one who was literally born under the cosmic signature of the King’s Star. Jesus, as we know, was born in the lineage of the House of David. But to be born in the lineage of David didn’t only mean that you had parents in that lineage. It also meant that you were born under the Star of David, which occurred when Jupiter, the King’s Star, aligned with Saturn.
Fifteen centuries after the birth of Jesus, German-born Johannes Kepler enters our story. Kepler is considered the "Father of Modern Astronomy." He was also a brilliant astrologer. He uncovered the mathematics of the cosmos and discovered the laws of planetary motion. He also figured out the recurring patterns of conjunctions for Jupiter and Saturn.
Personally moved by his own observation of a Jupiter/Saturn conjunction in 1603, just before Christmas, Kepler mused over the meaning of the Christmas star. He did some calculations and figured out that there was a Jupiter/Saturn conjunction in the years 7 and 6 BC.
Although Jupiter and Saturn reach conjunction every twenty years, on occasion they actually conjunct three times within a year, from earth's point of view. This phenomena is called a triple conjunction. According to Kepler's calculations, there was, in fact, a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, in the sign of Pisces, in the years 7-6 BC. Kepler also learned from the writings of a medieval scholar, Rabbi Abarbonel, the extreme importance of the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction in the sign of Pisces for the Jewish people. This whole concept intrigued Johannes Kepler. So Kepler was the first person of our era to realize that the Star of Bethlehem was a lineup of Jupiter and Saturn, based on an Old Testament prophecy of the coming of the King of Kings. The Prophets said that the arrival of this messiah would be associated with a celestial event as a sign from God.
Changing of the Ages
For the last couple of thousand years, the North Pole of the Earth has been pointing to that area in the sky we call Pisces. This means that, astrologically, we have been in the Age of Pisces, or the Age of the Fish! Note the connections between the fish and Christianity. Christ was a fisher among men. The vesica pisces, the vessel of the soul, became a symbol for the church. Fish represent apparent multiplicity, and in the Age of the Fish, it was reserved for the religious mystic to see how all the individual fishes are, in truth, one.
In these times, we have talk now of another new age, The Age of Aquarius. Because the equinox slips backward, it goes from Pisces to Aquarius, rather than Aries. It is the resonance between the changing of the ages two thousand years ago and the changing of the ages in modern times that captures our attention as this story unfolds.
Origins of Christianity
The gift of the magi was really the gift of the changing of civilization. It doesn’t matter what religion you are; the last two thousand years have been the age of Christianity.
The magi are so central to the Christmas story that in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the gift-bearing magi at the birth place of the baby Jesus. The Three Wise Men sought out the birth of a baby to play a role in the founding of a religion that has been dominant for two thousand years. The birth of Jesus may have been the single most important event in the last two thousand years, because it so altered the course of history worldwide. The magi were the first people who recognized the event. If these astrologers hadn’t properly identified that event, apparently no one would have even known that there was a star!
The suppressed origins of Christianity date back to these magi who recognized the signs of their times. The magi showed the sign of the Star of Bethlehem to King Herod, and he was amazed and he became fearful of the power of change. The magi were undoubtedly the founders of Christmas, and to some extent the founders of Christianity.
Cosmic Alignments Then and Now
The story of the Star of Bethlehem tells us that cosmic alignments herald earthly events. The Lord’s Prayer tells us that “it is done on earth as it is in heaven.” The words are clear even if we, in our scientific mindset, shirk from the true meaning. Ancient prophecy was often astrological.
What will the stars of the late twentieth century mean to the big historical picture? What will these times bring? The Christmas Star brings us an answer, or at least a perspective. Even if we were alive during the ministry of Jesus and were personally touched by his spiritual magic, we could not, in our wildest imagination, have predicted what was to follow. By the same token, even if we accept that these are times of great proportion, and that we are at the edge of a new world, we cannot know what is around the bend of history.
All we can do is pay attention to what is happening and uncover as much truth as we can about our past. All we can do is remind ourselves and those close to us that love is stronger than fear, and that truth is more powerful than deception.