Grant J. Mathews | December 29, 2018
Editor's Note: This piece is part of "12 Days of Classics," a holiday series drawn from the magazine's archives and published at magazine.nd.edu from Saturday, December 22, 2018, to Wednesday, January 2, 2019. Merry Christmas!
At this time in the Christian year, we are often reminded that the Gospel of Matthew records a peculiar astronomical event that occurred at the birth of Christ. As a child, I had a vivid image of what this event must have looked like.
On December 24, 1 A.D., a special star appeared above a stable in Bethlehem to point the way for three kings from the Orient so they could meet up with some humble shepherds to witness a special child who had been born in this humble place. I assumed that everyone understood that this star of Christmas must have had some sort of special pointing ray to show where the baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Now, years later, I study stars for a living. That is, I work as a theoretical astrophysicist at Notre Dame. When my kids ask me what I do for a living I say, “Colleagues come to me and say, ‘I saw a star do such and such, what is it?’” I run computer models to try to explain what they saw.
We have a lot to say about the stars these days. We know that our sun is but one star in the collection of a hundred million stars that make up the galaxy, and that our galaxy is but one of a billion others. That means that there are something like a hundred million billion stars out there.
So we ask: Of the hundred million billion stars out there shining down from the heavens, which is the one that made its appearance known on that special day so long ago?
For many years, astronomers, historians and theologians have pondered the question of what this “Christmas star” could be.
Read more here.