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Talk explores facts of Christmas Star

by ANNA BOARINI | Monday, December 6, 2010

Rather than exploring what the Church says the Christmas Star was, astrophysicist Grant J. Matthews took a look at what science believes it to be in his presentation, “What and When was the Christmas Star: An Astrophysics Prospective.”

The presentation took place in the digital visualization theatre (DVT) in the Jordan Hall of Science Sunday.

Matthews described the Christmas star as a question pondered by theologians, priests and even physicists for centuries.

“The question is which star was the one that heralded the arrival of the Christ child?” Matthews said.

Scientists can now attempt to answer this question with the help of the DVT, Matthews said. This computer and theatre has access to all of NASA’s satellites and databases. This access allows scientists at Notre Dame to view every star that has ever existed.

“This is not your grandma’s planetarium,” Matthews said.

When an event happens in the sky, physicists ask three questions to figure out what that event was, Matthew said. They ask when and where it occurred, what the characteristics were and if anyone else saw it. Using these questions, along with modern technology, has helped narrow down what astrological event the three kings may have seen.

Matthews explained how historians and theologians think the Christmas star may have appeared in the spring. The gospel of Matthew says shepherds watching their sheep also saw the star, Matthews said, and shepherds traditionally only watched their flocks at night in the spring when lambs are born.

The Christmas Star is also called the morning star, which means it was in the east.

“This meant that the star moved, and then reappeared, because the Magi saw the star twice,” Matthews said. “The star could be one of three things: a comet, a nova or a super nova.”

Most people agree the star was not a nova or a comet because these were seen as a bad omen in ancient times. Matthews said he believes the star was a planetary alignment.

“The Magi were Zoroastrian priests and astrology was extremely important to them,” Matthews said. “They would pay close attention to the location of the planets and what it means.”

Through his research, Matthews said he thinks the planets aligned sometime during 4 to 8 B.C.. He said he thinks the specific date of this alignment was April 17, 6 B.C., because the sun, Jupiter, the moon and Saturn all aligned in the constellation Aries, while Venus and Mars aligned nearby.

“The Magi would have recognized the alignment in Aries as a sign that a powerful leader would be born,” Matthews said. “Jupiter and the moon represent a powerful leader that will die at a certain time.”

Matthews finished up the presentation with a showing of the film “Season of Light,” which explains different Christmas traditions and where they began, along with what the Christmas Star may have been.