The Christmas stories of the Bible that inspire such joy and wonder are dismissed by most New Testament scholars as fanciful fiction. But discoveries in astronomy and archeology reveal that the Gospel accounts are much more than fairytales for children.
Let’s take a closer look, and uncover an even deeper, mind-blowing mystery at the heart of the great feast of Christmas.
The astrophysicist Avraham Loeb of Harvard was asked in an interview if he is religious. While insisting he is not a religious man, his response strongly suggests a deeper reality behind the science: “I am struck by the order we find in the universe, by the regularity, by the existence of laws of nature…That is quite remarkable.”
This finely tuned order is reflected in our own planet Earth, which is perfectly positioned within the solar system to support the existence of life. Larger planets shield us from cosmic debris that could damage our planet. Our unusually large moon regulates tides, the distribution of water, and helps position and maintains our planet’s tilted axis, so we experience seasons that are perfect for life cycles.
Scientist and educator Sherri Seligson writes that “Earth has an unusual atmosphere that is transparent to radio waves and visible light, yet it blocks other wavelengths that can be harmful.” This is rare among planets and this transparent atmosphere allows us to raise our eyes to wonder at the heavens above. Seligson adds, “Isn’t it interesting that the perfect features that support living things – allow those living things to observe the universe we are in?”
This same transparent atmosphere made it possible for the ancient diplomats and astronomers we call the Three Kings or Wisemen, to gaze upward to the heavens and follow that mysterious star of Bethlehem.
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The modern science of astronomy, and the latest archeological research, can helps us better understand the Christmas story and help answer the questions, who were the wisemen, and was there really a Star of Bethlehem?
It is important to note that God was certainly able to create a miraculous sign to announce the birth of Jesus, and this sign could have occurred in conjunction with, or independent of any natural astronomical event. Think of the spectacular Miracle of the Sun at the apparitions of our Blessed Mother Mary at Fatima Portugal in 1917 that was seen by over 70,000 people in that region, including atheists and other skeptics.
But a natural event that aligned with the birth of Jesus is also an interesting possibility. Using the latest astronomy software we can rewind the heavenly skies to find several planetary conjunctions that occurred in the years around the birth of Jesus.
In the year 3 B.C., Jupiter and Venus met to produce a striking appearance in the ancient sky. Over the next year, the planets continued their journey across the heavens before merging into what may have appeared to the wisemen as a shimmering single star in June.
Most modern scholars dismiss the story of the Three Kings or assume it is just symbolic. Father Dwight Longenecker in his book Mystery of the Magi makes a good case for why they are wrong.
Father Longenecker write that wisemen were not kings themselves but advisors from the court of Aretas IV, the king of Nabatea, present-day Jordan. Nabatea was a major center of commerce in the Middle East when Jesus was born, and a relatively short journey on horseback from Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem. These advisers were likely experienced diplomats, and closely observed the astrology and astronomy of their day to help guide their king in the governance of his kingdom.
Given the political and diplomatic concerns of the region, and the astronomical events in the heavens, it would not have been unusual for the King of Nabatea to send his special envoys to gather information, and welcome the new king suggested by the signs they witnessed in the heavens. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were well-known treasures in Nabatea, and would have made the perfect gift for a Nabatean king to send in homage to a neighboring king.
Jesus as the second person of the Blessed Trinity was in perfect union with the Father and Holy Spirit from all eternity.
If the Star of Bethlehem was an actual astronomical event, then the planets and stars seen by the three wisemen were perfectly aligned, at this exact period in history, to proclaim the birth of the Christ Child. This was an actual historic event in time.
The coming of Christ in human form, born of the Virgin Mary, was in the mind of God from before the universe was created. All creation was orchestrated to unfold in such a way as to proclaim this blessed event.
For all the light we surround ourselves with at this time of year, Christmas can be a difficult season for some. But no matter how chaotic, dark and painful your life may seem, whatever rejection and abandonment you have suffered, or how much our world descends into chaos and moral confusion – there is hope – because we have been passionately loved by our God before the creation of the universe.
Jesus became man to begin healing the spiritual and physical wounds of the human family. In unfathomable humility and sacrificial love, the Word of God descended from heavens and all eternity to suffer the most painful rejection and death, in order to free us from the bondage of sin, and all the forces of the evil one and his accomplices.
We live in this dynamic and still-unfolding period of salvation history as we await the restoration of God’s absolute Providence over his creation in Christ Jesus, when he will forever subdue the diabolical forces of evil that seek to destroy God’s creation, and separate his children from their Heavenly Father.
LifeNews Note: Theresa Burke, Ph.D., and Kevin Burke, LSW, are the co-founders of Rachel’s Vineyard and pastoral associates. of Priests for Life. They are co-authors of Rivers of Blood, Oceans of Mercy.