By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
Because St. John’s is a Catholic university, every undergraduate student is required to take courses in theology and philosophy, no matter what their major might be. Whether they are biology majors aspiring to careers in medicine, or business majors aiming to be leaders in the corporate world, their theology courses aim to help them understand the teachings and traditions that make a Catholic university distinctive and to ground them in values that can guide them along life’s journey.
Required courses are rarely popular! Besides grumbling about that, some students arrive in our classrooms with preconceptions about what they might have to endure in a theology course. We delight in reading evaluations in which pleasantly surprised students comment, “This is hardly what I expected from a theology course!”
When I teach a course called “The Mystery of God,” I ask my students what they think about the relationship between faith and reason, between religion and science. Many share the common misperceptions that faith and reason have nothing to
do with each other and that religion and science are always at odds with each other. How surprised they are to discover how many scientists have been people of deep faith, among them, the Belgian priest, mathematician, and astronomer Georges Lemaître, who in 1931 first put forth what we now call the Big Bang theory!
It surprises them, even more, to hear about the Vatican Observatory, which is among the oldest astronomical research institutions globally, and to learn that its astronomers are still conducting cutting-edge research. The observatory operates the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, located in southeastern Arizona, a part of the Mount Graham International Observatory.
Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., the current Director of the Vatican Observatory, earned his doctorate in planetary sciences at the University of Arizona and entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) eleven years later. The holder of the unusual distinction of having an asteroid named after him, Consolmagno is the author of many scientific papers and several popular books — Among those is his book “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?… And Other Questions from the Astronomer’s Inbox at the Vatican Observatory,” co-authored with fellow Jesuit Father Paul Mueller, S.J., a historian and philosopher of science. While I won’t go into the question posed in the title, I highly recommend the book, which also includes a fascinating discussion of “What Really Happened to Galileo.”
As I pondered the Scriptures for the Solemnity of the Epiphany, I read with special interest the chapter where Consolmagno and Mueller address the question of “What was the Star of Bethlehem?” This is the star that Matthew’s Gospel tells us the magi observed at its rising and followed to Bethlehem, where they found the child Jesus and paid him homage. Tongue-in-cheek, the two priest-scholars mention a newspaper article that (wrongly) claimed the Vatican Observatory’s main objective was to figure out the star of Bethlehem! Even so, they dive into the question in this book. Ruling out supernovas and comets, they then explore the possibility that the “star” of Bethlehem might have been a conjunction of planets, an event like the “Great Conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn of Dec. 21, 2020.
A conjunction is when two celestial objects appear close together as viewed from earth, and in this great conjunction, these two planets appeared from earth to be just one degree apart. Consolmagno and Mueller explain that the 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler first suggested that the “star of Bethlehem” might have been such an event, observing that such conjunctions happened in 7 BC. After reviewing these and other hypotheses about what the Star of Bethlehem might have been, Consolmagno and Mueller conclude that nobody really knows enough to argue which theory offers the definitive scientific explanation.
What matters more than sifting through hundreds of theories about the star of Bethlehem is to focus on the magi. Perhaps just as enigmatic as the star they followed, the magi were not kings, despite the popular hymn, but scholars and seekers.
Brother Guy Consolmagno writes that the magi are “models for us Jesuits here at the observatory: doing science, they are surprised to find God. And their thirst to find God motivates them to do science.” The psalmist sings, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands” (Psalm 19:2).
The God by whose infinite wisdom the splendor of the universe came into being is the God whose glorious light was revealed in humble Bethlehem in the person of Jesus. Like the magi whose scrutiny of the heavens led them to do homage to the Holy Child at Bethlehem, may we never cease to follow the One we adore as the true Light of the world!
Readings for The Epiphany of the Lord
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.