5th January 2024

Tomorrow is Epiphany, the day when we remember the visit of the three wise men to the baby Jesus. You will know the story from Matthew 2.1–12. The visitors were once known as the three “kings”, then they became the three “wise men”. Now they tend to be known by their Greek name of the three “magi” – the Mathew passage does not actually say that they were kings or even that they were wise! And there were not necessarily three of them – just three different gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

But it is the star that has always caught my attention. As a former astronomer, my scientific mind kicks in at any mention of the night sky in the Bible. There is an urge to seek a physical explanation of the “star of Bethlehem” and many a book has been written on the subject. The viable astronomical explanation tends to come down to the “star” being either a nova (an exploding star), an alignment of the brightest planets, or a comet. It is only the latter – a comet – that actually moves across the sky, so if the guiding star was a natural event, then the smart money goes on a comet. Is such a natural explanation any less astounding than a supernatural one? The comet must have begun its journey through the Solar System many years, or even decades, before the birth of Jesus, in order for it to pass by the Earth on Christmas night. The coincidence would have been miraculous – but not nearly as miraculous as God being born in the likeness of a human baby.

Ian Waddington