Br. Guy Consolmagno at the Vatican Observatory in Italy on Nov. 22, 2013. Credit: Marco Gandolfo/CNA.
The “Great Conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn taking place this month — dubbed the “Christmas Star” — is a pretty sight, but it is impossible to know for sure if it has any connection to the Star of Bethlehem, a Vatican astronomer said.
On 21 December, the planets Jupiter and Saturn will appear a tenth of a degree apart in the night sky, something called a “Great Conjunction.”
This conjunction happens approximately every 20 years, but this year the two planets will appear the closest they have been in almost 400 years. To the naked eye, they will look like one, bright star, thus earning the nickname the “Christmas Star.”
Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., told CNA that the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter doesn’t have a religious significance, but “nonetheless, it is a pretty sight that everyone should have a look at.”
The Catholic priest is an astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory, which has research sites outside Rome at Castel Gandolfo and in Tucson, Arizona.
To see the conjunction, he recommended looking just after sunset for Jupiter, “the bright ‘star’ low to the west; nearby is a fainter ‘star,’ Saturn.”
All of December, “Jupiter will be creeping closer to Saturn,” he explained. “On 21 December, they’ll be so close together that your naked eye won’t be able to tell them apart.”
Some astronomers have theorized that this conjunction of the two bright planets could be what the three “wise men from the East” saw in the sky and followed, leading them to find the Child Jesus, as recounted in St. Matthew’s Gospel.
“Is this really what the Star of Bethlehem was?” Consolmagno asked. “No one knows for sure what the star was, and until we have a time machine where we can go back and interview Matthew with a video recorder, no one ever will know for sure!”
He recalled that the Star of Bethlehem itself was not the focus of the account, but at whom the star pointed.
“The important thing to remember is that the Star of Bethlehem is just a small part of the infancy narrative in Matthew’s Gospel. The point of his story isn’t the star. It’s the baby,” he said.
“Whatever the Magi would have seen … it was something that nobody looking at the sky would have noticed, but they did,” Consolmagno told the CNA Newsroom podcast in December 2019.
“The shepherds in the fields where it was dark, where they didn’t have city lights, they knew the sky. What was it the Magi saw that everybody else didn’t see?” Consolmagno asked.
“The Magi are seeing something in the sky which is interpreted in terms of astrology. Now, astrology is specifically forbidden in the Hebrew Scriptures,” he explained. “It was being used as a reason to worship the stars rather than God, and as a way of denying human freedom.”
He said that you can download a program on your computer which tells you the position of the stars and roll it back to April of the year 6 B.C. What you will see is “all of the planets rising with the sun.”
“And our understanding of what the ancients thought of astrology is they thought this would be significant, but you could only know that it’s happening if you’ve calculated it, because the sun is there! You can’t actually see the planets,” he said.
“And this is a relatively rare event, it all fits,” he continued. “Is that really what Matthew was talking about? I don’t know. It’s fun to play with the idea.”