Christmas is almost here – we’ve put up our tree, we’re scurrying around town doing our shopping, and staring at the boxes of cards we need to get addressed. Christmas as usual, but every year I realize that I’ve learned something new about the birth of Christ – something that makes it all matter even more than it ever has. This year I am even more struck with the reality of Christ’s birth and the precise divine planning that went into that first Christmas. Christmas is not a fairytale – Santa notwithstanding. It’s a documented historical reality – documented both in writing and in the stars….
Those of us who attended Sunday School in our youth eventually came face to face with the “begats” – those long strings of genealogy filled with unpronounceable names and apparently impossible ages—Check out a few verses from Genesis 5:
21 When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah. 22 After he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. 23 Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. 24 Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.
25 When Methuselah had lived 187 years, he became the father of Lamech. 26 After he became the father of Lamech, Methuselah lived 782 years and had other sons and daughters. 27 Altogether, Methuselah lived a total of 969 years, and then he died… and on and on and on.
The last of the begats is recorded in the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. It runs from Abraham, c2500 B.C., to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. It’s taken me many years to understand why these lists are in the Bible and what they have to do with Christmas. But now I think I have a glimmer.
You see, most other religions have at their center beings that are not thoroughly embedded in recorded history, dramatically connected to celestial events, clearly placed in both time and space. Siddarhtha Guatama (Buddha) is thought to have lived somewhere in the East, sometime between the 6th and the 4th centuries B.C.; we know nothing about his background, his ancestors. Mohammed was born in a specific time (570 A. D.) in a specific place (Mecca), and we know he was orphaned and raised by his uncle; other than that we have no information about his lineage; he just pops into history. The Hindu gods have no human presence – no human prophets, just sages who appear occasionally and then ghost off.
But Jesus Christ is different. We can, through those interminable “begats,” trace his ancestry, without a hitch, from Adam, through his third son Seth, to Noah, from Noah’s son Shem to Abraham, from Abraham to David, and from David through two different lines (Solomon and Nathan) to Joseph and Mary respectively, the Joseph and Mary who travelled to Bethlehem where Jesus was born in 2 B.C.
Jesus is not just some mythical figure, some legend of a really good guy who was followed by a few misfits until his untimely and grisly end. His presence on earth was predicted, proclaimed, prophesied from the earliest of human existence. Adam and Eve learned of his eventual sacrifice just after they disobeyed God and lost their place in Eden. Two animals died to make that clear to them. Their second son understood the lesson they had handed down to him and expressed that understanding in his animal sacrifice. Their first son rejected that message and made two sacrifices that demonstrated that – a plate of vegetables and his believing brother, Abel. Generations later Abraham thoroughly understood and when God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham almost went through with it, partly because he knew that God would someday sacrifice His own son.
When the angel of death swooped down over Egypt almost a thousand years later, it was the shedding of blood, the sacrificial lamb that saved the Jews from the loss of their firstborn. Later, Moses built the Tabernacle and it was centered on the idea of the sacrificial death of the perfect. I could go on and on like the “begats,” but the point is that since Adam and Eve left the Garden man looked forward to the arrival of a savior. They even had the idea connected to a star:
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel, And batter the brow of Moab, And destroy all the sons of tumult. Numbers 24:17
The Wise Men, the Magi, likely a remnant of Jews who stayed in Babylon after the captivity (586-538 B.C.), knew about the prophecies, they watched for the signs -- the signs that God planned into the universe since before the beginning of time. They counted Sabbath years and Jubilee years. They (Whether there were three of them, or more, no one knows.) followed the star across the desert to where it stopped over Bethlehem. Stars don’t stop – but planets appear to as they trace their own orbits across sky (retrograde motion).
Because the universe runs more precisely than a Rolex we can use modern software to trace back in time and see if there might be an astronomical event that coincided with the birth of Christ, which we can date via the death of Herod and the Roman census. An older interpretation of historical events points to 4 B.C. for Herod’s death, though recent information leans toward 1 B.C.. Herod the Great was the king who grilled the Wise Men about the newborn “King of the Jews” and ordered the killing of the baby boys. He died shortly after this decree, so the birth of Jesus had to precede Herod’s death.
According to the recent work of Jack Finnegan and Rick Larson interesting things were happening in the skies just prior to that death. In the fall of 3B.C., just a few days after the Feast of Tabernacles the people of the Middle East would have seen the beginning of a triple conjunction of Jupiter and the star Regulus, September 14th, February 12th and May 9th. The two bodies appeared so close together that to the naked eye they would have appeared to be one huge, super-bright star. (It’s worth noting that Regulus is the key planet in the constellation Leo and that Jesus Christ is of the tribe (back to begats) of Judah whose symbol is the Lion. Christ even bears the title “The Lion of Judah.” It is also worth noting that triple conjunctions had had historical significance for the Jews for 500 years before this event.)
Just nine months later on the 17th of June, 2 B.C. the Magi would have seen a conjunction between Jupiter and Venus. This would have been even brighter.
But what about December 25th? Did that get lost in the shuffle? No. The Magi, if they saw the triple conjunction that started in September of 3 B.C. and counted nine months forward would have been convinced come the conjunction in June of 2 B.C. that the Christ child had been born. Then they set out, probably from Babylon, and the retrograde motion of Jupiter would have led them, six months later, to Bethlehem. When would that have happened? When was it that Jupiter appeared to stand still over that tiny town? On December 25th of 2 B.C.
And so we are here on a different continent over 2,000 years later and we buy gifts, as the Magi did, and we put a star on the top of the tree and lights all over our houses, and sing about angels and wise men and shepherds, half the time giving no thought to the reality of what we celebrate: the birth of the God-Man, Israel’s promised Messiah, the Savior of the world. There will be peace on Earth and there always has been good will toward men.
I referenced several sources in the course of writing this piece, chief amongst them are:
Allen Johnson’s pdf file “Rediscovering Ancient Chronologies”
Rick Larson’s video “The Bethlehem Star”