We’re talking about THE Star, the one that the Wise Men followed, the one that stopped over “the place where Jesus lay.” There are lots of differing opinions about what that star could have been. For today’s blog, I bring you two experts with very different views on the star and interestingly enough both are professors at Vanderbilt (my alma mater): David Weintraub, professor of Astronomy and Amy-Jill Levin, professor of New Testament Studies and author of “Light of the World.” It is not surprising to me how these two line up; Weintraub the Astronomer makes a case for a real star that could in fact, appear to move. Levine has an entirely different perspective.
Weintraub: “One can claim that Matthew’s words describe a miracle, something beyond the laws of physics. But Matthew chose his words carefully and wrote “star in the east” twice, which suggests that these words hold a specific importance for his readers.” Weintraub explains that “in the east” comes from the Greek phrase en te anatole. This is a mathematical and astrological term used in ancient Greece to describe a very specific phenomenon. Ent e anatole describes the sighting of a planet that appears in the east for only a short time.
“Though the planets, sun and moon move along approximately the same path through the background stars, they travel at different speeds, so they often lap each other. When the sun catches up with a planet, we can’t see the planet, but when the sun passes far enough beyond it, the planet reappears.” (Modern astrologers call this a heliacal rising.)
Levine is not buying the heliacal rising theory. Levine: “Let’s think about this, Stars, which are giant balls of gas that fuse hydrogen into helium in a thermonuclear way do not function like GPS systems, first dropping the Magi off in Jerusalem and then rerouting to get them to the suburbs. (Bethlehem is about five miles south-southwest of Jerusalem.)…… The star of Bethlehem is not about science it is about a search for meaning. The star of Matthew’s second chapter is not a star as we understand starts. People in antiquity did not know about thermonuclear fusion or every how big starts are. In the ancient world, stars were sentient beings, gods, or the souls of the righteous or angels. The star is a heavenly messenger not a science lesson.”
A couple of things strike me about these opinions. First Weintraub, the scientist is offering a possibility. This is what does happen; this is what could have happened. Levine is putting a stake in the ground. The Star in the East is not scientific… it is not even a star. (I have mentioned it several times: I have a love/hate relationship with Levine’s writings. I often do not agree with what she says but I always learn something new from her work.)
So where does this leave us. I fall down on the side that there was a brighter than usual star in the sky but that does not exclude the possibilities of symbolism and what the star can mean in our celebration of Christmas. Stars are a system of navigation and have been throughout history. If you can find the north star, you can know where you are. The story of the birth of Jesus truly needs a star, because with his birth the human race is about to reset our compass and our direction. Whatever it was; whatever it is, the star is about lining up our lives on the course that Jesus set.
Oh, star of wonder,
star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright.
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide with thy perfect light.
Guide on Star; guide on.
Grace and Peace at Advent.