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The feast of the Epiphany celebrates an event rich in theological significance. The arrival of the magi from the east to worship Christ demonstrates that Jesus is not only King of the Jews but King of us all. Even the Gentile world rejoices at the birth of Christ.
Some doubt whether this theological event was an historical event. Was this perhaps just a story Matthew created to make a point about the universality of Jesus' reign? Those who claim that it never happened have only their suspicion as evidence, centered mainly around doubts as to the existence of the star the wise men followed on their journey.
What was the star of Bethlehem? Some theologians maintain that it was a miracle -- no other explanation is needed. Certainly this could be the case. The idea that God would miraculously create a star to lead the magi to Jesus is no more difficult to believe than the Incarnation or the Virgin Birth.
Nevertheless, others have looked for a scientific explanation for the star of Bethlehem. People have suggested everything from comets to a super nova in an attempt to find an explanation. The most likely explanation is a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces which occurred around the time of Jesus' birth. We don't need to go into detail, but the cultural meaning that these planets had to the Babylonians would have suggested the birth of a powerful king in the land of the Jews. Furthermore, such an astronomical conjunction would have only been noticed by astronomer sages looking to the sky for such signs. This would explain why the star would have led the magi to the Christ-child while going completely unnoticed by King Herod and others.
So it is certainly plausible that the star of Bethlehem was a natural phenomenon. But saying that there may have been nothing miraculous about the star is not to say that it was not caused by God. There is an unfortunate assumption today that science and religion must be at odds: that faith in God is only necessary to explain the explainable, and that once we discover the natural cause God becomes unnecessary.
This conflict between faith and science (and in particular the Catholic Church and science) is largely fabricated. The silliness of the supposed conflict between the Christian faith and science can be illustrated with an example. Suppose I were to spend months disassembling a car and studying its parts until I knew absolutely everything about how it worked. Would this in any way disprove that the car was designed and assembled by a team of engineers and auto-workers? Of course not. Going even further, suppose I proved that the car was not in fact assembled by people, but by automated machines. Would this disprove that the car was created by men, or would it only suggest that the machines were created by men for the purpose of making the car?
In a like way, even if we knew everything about how the universe works down to the smallest sub-atomic particle, it would in no way disprove that the universe -- with all of its physical laws -- was created by God. It would only help us understand more about God's creation and our place in it.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, writes:
If the wise men, led by the star to search for the king of the Jews, represent the movement of the Gentiles toward Christ, this implies that the cosmos speaks of Christ, even though its language is not yet fully intelligible to man in his present state. The language of creation provides a great many pointers. It gives man an intuition of the Creator. Moreover, it arouses the expectation, indeed the hope, that this God will one day reveal Himself. And at the same time it elicits an awareness that man can and should approach Him.Ancient man believed that the stars controlled our destiny. This is why they named the stars and planets after gods. But the stars which foretold the birth of Christ were not controlling His destiny --Christ was controlling the stars, as He has from the beginning of all creation. How marvelous to contemplate that from the first moment of the Big Bang, natural laws were set into motion that would lead the sky itself to herald the arrival of the Creator into His Creation. "The heavens declare the glory of God" (Ps 19:2).
The Creator of the world has taken on human nature in Christ, and so through Christ humankind is elevated. The eastern Church speaks of this as divinization, man being made like God. The western Church calls it sanctification, or being made holy. In either case, the next time you gaze upon the night sky, remember this thought: God humbled Himself to be born of a virgin so that we may be made higher than the stars.
|The Helix Nebula, image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Source Reddit.|