We’ve all heard of the conflict between science and faith: Darwin supposedly disproved creation, the Bible is full of supposedly unscientific statements, Yuri Gagarin went into space and found there was no god/God and so on.
Writing a sermon on the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus I wondered if Matthew’s account of the Magi being led by a star to Bethlehem could be a test case for the science/faith conflict. Is this “star” scientifically credible? Or is it a fairy story?
On the face of it the case for scientific credibility doesn’t look good. The thing about stars is that they don’t move. They appear to us to move across the night sky but that’s only because the Earth itself is moving. Relative to each other, they don’t move. Their place in the heavens is fixed.
The first key to unravelling this mystery is to realise that the Bible speaks in ordinary rather than scientific language. It speaks – as we do still – of the sun rising and setting. The sun doesn’t rise or set but that’s how it looks to us. So maybe the “star” looked to the Earth-bound observer like a star but was in fact something else?
Johannes Kepler formulated the laws of planetary motion, which are still used today by astronomers, space scientists and engineers. Kepler was also a committed Christian. In the hope of finding some celestial phenomenon which could explain the star of Bethlehem he used his prodigious mathematical ability to work backwards to how the heavens would have looked around the birth of Christ. But he found nothing.
Kepler’s problem was that he was looking at the wrong dates. Until very recently scholars have believed that Herod died in 4 BC, which would mean that Jesus must have been born before that date. Kepler searched the heavens in the years prior to 4 BC and found nothing. However, the case is now made by some scholars that Herod in fact died in 1 BC. So Jesus would have been born in 3 or 2 BC.
Kepler was a mathematical genius. But now, thanks to modern computer software, you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to do in a moment what would have cost Kepler a great deal of time and effort. With this software you can locate what the night sky looked like at any point in past history and from wherever on the planet you want to be. You can go back to Babylon or Jerusalem or Bethlehem in the years around the time of the birth of Jesus and see what there was to be seen.
The key player is the planet Jupiter. Planets are “wandering stars” – our word “planet” derives from a Greek word meaning “to wander”. Jupiter is by far the largest planet in our solar system and has always been known as the King Planet. In the night sky in 3 and 2 BC amazing things were happening involving the King Planet Jupiter, the King Star Regulus, and the planet Venus (a symbol of fertility and motherhood), all in the constellation of Leo the Lion, which is the symbol of the tribe of Judah, the tribe to which Jesus belonged. The conjunction of these heavenly bodies revealed by the software would have resulted in something which would appear to be a “star” and would have been the brightest thing in the sky at the time.
This would certainly have caught the attention of the star-gazing Magi in Babylon. The details are complex but fascinating to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncoC9ZX2C6Y.
Stars don’t move, but planets do – they orbit the sun. But sometimes planets appear to stand still for a time. This is an optical illusion caused by what astronomers call “retrograde motion”. For the Magi looking south towards Bethlehem, Jupiter would have appeared to stand still over Bethlehem, precisely on 25th December 2 BC.
Maybe that’s where our date for Christmas comes from: not so much the birth of Jesus as the visit of the Magi? At any rate, it’s a neat tie-up between science and faith, and perhaps the subsequent history of celebrating Christmas as well. Matthew wasn’t inventing a fairy story; he was reporting history, which seems to fit perfectly with science. The Bible doesn’t teach science, but it does teach history.
The science/faith conflict is not supported by Matthew’s account of the Bethlehem star. If anything, rather the reverse: science and faith are seen to tell the same story.
Matthew’s account of the star and the Magi reminds us who God is: he is the one who guides even the motion of the heavenly bodies. If he can do that, we can trust him to take us through the pandemic to a better place. But we do need, like the Magi, to follow his lead.
There is, however, a real conflict in the story Matthew tells. This is the clash, not of two kinds of knowledge (science and faith) but of two kingdoms: the kingdom of worldly power represented by Herod, who is thrown into turmoil by the news of a new king, versus the Kingdom of God, which comes in gentleness and hiddenness but will in time overthrow the sometimes ruthless, murderous tyranny of this world’s kingdoms. The end of oppression is good news but it’s a long time coming: we’re not there yet and won’t be until the consummation of the Kingdom when Jesus returns.
In the meantime the clash of kingdoms continues in the human heart: the clash between the angry, fearful rejection of divine authority over our lives represented by Herod and the glad submission of worship represented by the Magi. To some extent that battle rages in all our hearts. Will we resist God or surrender to him in loving worship and obedience?