Stargazing: In quest of the Christmas star

When people ask me, as they often do, why I have often braved the cold and lack of sleep to drive to the middle of nowhere to gaze at the brilliant winter stars, I think of the experience of three stargazers over 2,000 years ago and their long journey in quest of a star.

“Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.’”

Those wise stargazers lived in a time of crisis — of war and strife, of immense poverty and suffering. It was natural to look to the heavens for a sign of hope, and they found it in the form of a new star.

What was the star in the east that the three astrologers followed? For almost certainly they were astrologers, who believed that events in the heavens were portents of things that happened on earth. After all, the number of stars was fixed, and the stars moved in the heavens following a predictable course. A new star was something truly extraordinary and certainly would suggest some extraordinary event.

There are several modern theories about what this heavenly visitor was. Some say that it was a comet, a faint streak of light across the sky, which would have appeared brightest in the east when it was closest to the sun.

Others claim that it was one of the conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Venus in 4 and 7 BCE.

A more pleasing explanation is that the light in the sky was indeed a star in a place where no star had been visible before. Modern astronomers call such a phenomenon a nova, literally “new star,” although we know that they aren’t really new — we are just seeing them for the first time.

A star can suddenly flare up — increase its brightness by millions of times — in a gigantic hydrogen-bomb-style explosion called a supernova.

We see supernovas fairly often in galaxies other than our own Milky Way galaxy. They are so bright, their explosions so powerful, that they often briefly outshine the 300 billion stars of the rest of the galaxy in which they occur. They are generally only visible in telescopes, but a supernova in the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud was visible to the unaided eye in 1987.

Supernovas in our own galaxy are exceedingly rare events. Only four have been recorded in the last 1,000 years.

Most such stars were too far away or faint to be seen with the unaided eye before the explosion, but for a period of days or even weeks they are bright enough to be seen in broad daylight. At night they can be as bright as the quarter moon. After a time, they fade and cannot be seen again with the unaided eye.

Our three stargazers could have seen such a star in our galaxy and walked in its direction until they at last came to Judea, where by that time, the star may have been straight overhead:

“Lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

At first it seems ironic that a dying star could have come to symbolize the hope that Christmas represents.

But in its life cycle a star forges within itself the heavier elements out of which rocky planets like our Earth and the life that inhabits Earth are made.

When it explodes, a supernova expels those heavy elements into space where they stand a chance of reforming into new stars and planets upon which life can form. The raw materials that compose our very flesh and blood were forged in the center of a star, and thus our very existence depends on the violent death of a star.

The man whose birth we celebrate today is like that star. His birth has given millions of people hope, and his death has given them the promise of new life.

And we are like the wise men, searching for solutions to the pain and strife of our troubled times.

We honor the name of Jesus this Christmas day, but we do not honor his charge to us. As of late, we seem filled with hatred, mistrust, and a lack of empathy for those who are suffering and those who are not exactly like us. We live in the richest nation on Earth, but we seem oblivious to the suffering of others.

And when I think about our indifference, these words from Matthew come to mind:

“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

And we have become arrogant in our power over nature. Slowly and relentlessly we are making our world unlivable for future generations.

Indeed, we have harnessed the power that drives supernovas into bombs that could at any time wipe human life from the face of our fragile planet.

Clear nights come infrequently this time of year, and humanity seems resolute in its narrow-mindedness. But when the sky occasionally clears, the stars seem to shine with extraordinary splendor.

On those crystal-clear winter nights, I will stare up at the heavens every chance I get. And the first thing I will do is look up at my old friends, the familiar patterns of stars, for a new star — a sign of hope in a sometimes hopeless world.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.