Sunday, December 21, 2014

Jupiter Rising

Jupiter rises over Glacier Park and the North Fork of the Flathead River (c) John Ashley
Jupiter rises over the North Fork of the Flathead River earlier this week in Glacier National Park. Truck headlights light up the trees along the North Fork Road while the stars spin in their circular tracks.
'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the park
Creatures were staring, inspired by the dark
- except those in the pickup, following twin beams
Where headlights banished the night,
and chased Jupiter from their dreams

Now you see why I don't write poetry. But a few nights ago I felt inspired - beyond common sense - by Jupiter's "magical" return to Glacier Park's starlit horizon. The glowing planet reflected from currents in the North Fork's Flathead River, while the stars spun around in their traditional paths. It was a peaceful way to start the holidays.

These days, most of us are enjoying the aroma of fresh-cut Christmas trees inside our winter homes. Decorated evergreen trees are a winter tradition that pre-dates Santa Claus. But what about the tree-topper?

When did we bring an evening "star" indoors?

Human cultures have always looked skyward for hope and inspiration, trying to bring order to a chaotic world. The Sun's orderly movements create our annual calendar, star locations at dusk and dawn mark our seasons, and the Moon faithfully tracks our monthly intervals. These celestial certainties form the frames for virtually all of humanity's myths, stories and religions.

Today marks the winter solstice, when the Sun makes its lowest pass across our northern skies, when the night makes its longest visit of the year. This date has been a celebration of death and renewal for thousands of human generations.

Late in the game, the relatively new Christian church joined the festivities. In the 4th century A.D., church fathers finally decided to officially celebrate Jesus' birthday, but they had scant information on the correct date. So Christian leaders appropriated the pre-existing pagan celebration of death and renewal by placing Christmas on the winter solstice. (The solstice date was December 25th in Caesar's day.) Thereafter, Christmas would slowly replace solstice as our celebration of a benevolent cosmos.

And this is where our Christmas tree-topping star story begins.

No one knew when Jesus was really born, and years weren't even numbered until 525 A.D. That was the handiwork of a Roman monk, Dionysius Exiguus, who calculated that Jesus was born in the year 1 B.C. Other church scholars disagreed, and placed his birth day in 2, 3, or 4 B.C. Clues to the date were provided by Matthew. He wrote that a Christmas star was seen by three wise men, "in the days of Herod the king." Biblical scholars placed Herod's death at 4 B.C. and concluded that Jesus must have been born sometime around 7-6 B.C.

More recently, another scholar dated the birth during 3-2 B.C. That gave us two time tables to look for a Christmas Star that was not seen before or after. Modern astronomers spun the night sky backwards for almost 2,000 years and began searching.

There are a number of celestial candidates that could suddenly appear and then disappear again. Meteor fireballs are bright enough, but they don't fit Matthew's description of the Christmas Star. Comets fit his description quite well, and in 12 B.C. the Chinese recorded the passing of (what would become known as) Halley's Comet, but no comets were reported during the years of our search.

New stars (nova) and exploding stars (supernova) would suddenly appear in the sky. Again, the Chinese recorded such events during 5 and 4 B.C., but these fell right in between our two search periods. Plus, King Herod did not see the Christmas Star, and he surely would have noticed a supernova, even in daylight.

No, what we needed were eyes well-versed to the night sky. As luck would have it, such eyes apparently belonged to the three wise men, or "magi." Magi were specialists, trained observers belonging to an Iranian religious caste. Five hundred years before Jesus, their religion had absorbed Greek knowledge of astrology, and the very term, magi, had become synonymous with "astrologers."

In fact, in six different 20th century translations of the Bible, Matthew directly refers to the men as astrologers. As such, the magi's "Star of Bethleham" might have been a rare event that only a night owl would notice.

When we turned the night backwards to search for a Christmas Star appearing sometime between 7-6 or 3-2 B.C., something almost magical popped up - conjunctions. Three rare conjunctions occured during 7 B.C. The planets Jupiter and Saturn briefly merged into one bright point in the sky on May 27th, October 5th and once more on December 1st. And during 3 B.C. there were nine conjunctions between bright planets and stars. These were events that few besides the Magi would notice, events which occurred during the right time frames and matched Matthew's description.

Of these candidates, the most impressive conjunction took place on June 17th, in the year 2 B.C. On that spectacular night our two brightest planets, Jupiter and Venus, "merged" into one spectacular "star" in the magis' western sky.

Christmas presents in June, anyone?

So celebrate early and often. Traditionally, the star on top of your evergreen represents the Christmas Star, promising mankind's "rebirth" - a tradition that was appropriated from winter solstice, which celebrates nature's rebirth - and confirms order in the cosmos. And if you are so inclined, the star on your tree can also represent the inspirational beauties that twinkle through the longest night of our year.

Of course, all of this is fanciful speculation. But then, that's the point. We still yearn for meaning from above, so we still weave sky stories - old ones and new ones - into our modern lives. This solstice and Christmas, may you find a few quiet moments to appreciate the winter Sun during our short days, and the other, more-distant stars (and bright planets!) during our lingering nights. Celebrate your journey with them, and wonder anew.