Yesterday, March 20, 2021, the Sun was directly over the equator, and that brought in the spring (vernal) equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. Of course, it was the autumn equinox for those south of the equator. That means if you want to know what direction is due east, all you would need to do is watch the Sun come up, and due west was where the Sun went down. From now until June 20, the Sun will be moving farther north. We call that day the summer solstice. Where we live in the mid-Northern Hemisphere, the Sun will rise and set about 33 degrees north of due east and west on that day. Why do we need to have the Sun moving north and south in our sky anyway? Why can’t we have the equinox all year?
If the Sun continually stayed directly above the equator, life on Earth would be more difficult. Areas near the equator would be much too hot, and regions far from the equator would be much too cold. There would be two narrow “Goldilocks” areas in between that would be hospitable for life. Plants need a respite from the growing season to prepare for the next growth cycle. Animal life depends on the seasons for reproduction and growth. We would miss the beauty of the changing seasons. So having the equinox all year would not be a good idea. Then why does our planet have this variation in the direction of the Sun?
Earth’s axis tilts 23.5 degrees, and as our planet makes its annual journey around the Sun, the tilt varies toward or away from the Sun. At our summer solstice in June, the inclination is toward the Sun, and at the winter solstice, the axis tilts away from the Sun. That makes the Sun appear to move from 23.5 degrees north of the equator to 23.5 degrees south. At the equinox, for a moment, the Sun is precisely over the equator. The next question is, does this just happen to be a lucky accident?
Since this is just one more factor that makes Earth suitable for advanced life, how could we be so lucky? We have discussed before the many factors that must be just right for life to exist. This is one more, and we don’t think it’s an accident. We believe it’s another evidence of a wise Designer. God gave us seasons for a purpose (Genesis 1:14).
People give many different explanations of what the ”wise men” saw that led them to the Christ child. (See Matthew 2:1-12.) One of those explanations says there was a planetary alignment in the constellation Virgo (the Virgin). Since the magi may have been Zoroaster astrologers, they knew Christ had been born and followed “the star.” There is no connection between the star of Bethlehem and a planetary conjunction.
This December 21, at the winter solstice, there is a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. If you go outside about an hour after sunset and look to the southwest, you will see that the two planets are separated by less than a minute of arc, even though they are hundreds of millions of miles apart. If your eyesight is not very good, they may look like one very bright star.
This planetary conjunction is an exciting astronomical event, but it is not a good explanation of the star of Bethlehem. Whatever the magi saw, it could not have been a celestial star. Herod could have seen a celestial star for himself and would have had no reason to question its appearance as Matthew 2:3-10 describes. He could have had his people follow the star to find Christ and kill him.
Matthew 2:9 tells us that the star “went before them until it came to rest over the place where the young child was.” The closest star to planet Earth, outside of the Sun, is Proxima Centauri, and it is 4.2 light-years away. No stars move that way, and a planetary alignment is not a star.
The Bible does not present the star of Bethlehem as a natural object but as a miraculous act of God. Anytime the Bible says something is a miracle, it becomes a matter of faith, not science. How Jesus rose from the grave is not something we can scientifically explain. You either accept it, or you reject it, but all attempts to explain it naturally fail–and there have been many.
The star of Bethlehem was a miracle to show God’s acceptance of the Gentiles and to give Mary and Joseph the resources to move to Egypt and avoid Herod’s infanticide. The star of Bethlehem was not a natural event, but today’s planetary conjunction is. As we said yesterday, today’s event is not an omen and has no religious importance, but it is a rare, predictable astronomical event.
If you have looked to the southwest just after sunset in the past month, you probably saw two bright stars that have been moving closer to each other. They are not stars. They are the planets Jupiter and Saturn, two of the brightest objects in the sky, reaching a planetary conjunction for the winter solstice.
In their orbits around the Sun, Jupiter and Saturn appear to pass each other about every 20 years. However, the last time they appeared this close was in 1623, just 13 years after Galileo first pointed his telescope into the night sky and discovered four moons of Jupiter and saw Saturn’s rings. On December 21, those two planets will appear only one-tenth of a degree apart. That is one-fifth the diameter of the full moon.
You can bet that there will be hucksters making connections between this very unusual astronomical event and the star of Bethlehem or various political events. This conjunction is not part of a doomsday scenario but a demonstration of the accuracy of scientific observation. We can predict planetary conjunctions or solar and lunar eclipses to the minute, which is not hard to do.
When I taught earth science using the Earth Science Curriculum Project, we did a lab where the students predicted an eclipse of the Sun. They predicted when it would begin, when it would reach totality, and when it would end. I tried to make this a school-wide event, and the principal permitted me to take all 1000 students onto the school lawn to witness the eclipse. We gave the students special glasses and set up our telescopes to observe the eclipse.
We told the students what was going to happen and when it would happen. When it started, and the sky got dark, dogs began to howl. Crescents appeared on the ground under the trees as the eclipse projected through spaces in the leaves. Even though we had told the students what would happen, some kids began crying and ran back into the building in fear.
Why do people lack trust in scientific information, whether it concerns an eclipse, planetary movements, climate change, or COVID-19? Science and the Bible are friends, and God has called us to look at the creation around us and learn from it. Proverbs 8, Romans 1:19-20, and Matthew 6:25-33 all remind us of science and faith’s symbiotic relationship.
Tomorrow we will consider this planetary conjunction and the star of Bethlehem.
Almost everything about Christmas is rooted in history and in Christmas symbols that people use to remember things that are important to their faith. Even the date of Christmas has such a root. In the year 354 a leader in the Church named Liberius declared that December 25 would be a holy day for celebrating the birth of Christ. This date was chosen because there was a pagan festival which celebrated the winter solstice, and the Christian celebration was safer when other celebrations were taking place.
During this same time, Romans decorated their homes with evergreens which they considered to be a symbol of the regenerative power of nature. The shape of the Christmas tree was chosen in some cultures because it pointed toward heaven. Wreaths were used because they were in the motif of a wheel indicating the cycling of the Sun or of the seasons.
In Scandinavian tradition, decorative wreaths were hung on the door with a red ribbon and were called “welcome wreaths.” Anyone who came to the door was welcomed to the Christmas feast and a place setting was always present for “the poor man’s plate”.
While all these customs, traditions, and Christmas symbols are separate and apart from the teachings of the Bible, they reflect the history of Christianity. Our Christmas stories such as “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens and “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry reflect the values that have existed in many different cultures through the ages. Paul discussed this in Romans 14:5-19 and he ends it by saying, “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.”
We wish you the best for the holiday season, however you decide to participate in it, and may we also wish you the best for a joyous and wonderful new year.
After today, Sunday, December 22, 2019, the hours of daylight will begin to be longer in the Northern Hemisphere where we live. Last night at 11:19 p.m. local time (Eastern Standard), the December solstice occurred as the Sun reached its lowest point in the dome of the sky, even though we couldn’t see it. It happened at the same moment all over the Earth, but, of course, local times varied. (It was at 04:19 Universal Time, and you can figure your local time from that.)
The December solstice ushers in winter in the Northern Hemisphere and summer in the Southern Hemisphere. So for those of us in the north, the days will now start to slowly get longer as the weather gets colder. South of the equator, the situation is just the opposite. At the North Pole, there are 24 hours of darkness when the Sun never appears. At the South Pole, the Sun is up for 24 hours.
Although the December solstice is the time when the Sun is at its farthest point south, it hasn’t moved. We have. Earth’s axis is tilted 23.5 degrees from the path of its orbit path around the Sun. Each year that tilt causes us Earthlings to perceive that the Sun is moving north or south. Earth’s orbit is somewhat elliptical rather than a perfect circle. The point when Earth is closest to the Sun occurs in January during the Northern Hemisphere’s mid-winter. It’s mid-summer in the Southern Hemisphere, so you might think that their summers would be extra hot. Whatever increased heat would occur because of the proximity of the Sun is counteracted by the fact that the Southern Hemisphere is mostly covered by oceans which absorb the heat. That is just another part of our amazingly well-engineered planet.
In Genesis 1:14, we read that God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years.” Ever since Adam and Eve, people have recognized the Sun’s regular path across the sky and the changes in daylight, sunrise, and sunset times throughout the year. In ancient times, they didn’t understand why. We know why and we marvel at the design.
Every creature on Earth is affected in some way by the length of daylight. Historically, people in the Northern Hemisphere have celebrated the December solstice because it means the days will start getting longer, and spring will return. In ancient Rome, the people called their celebration Saturnalia and honored their pagan god Saturn with immoral behavior. With the coming of Christianity, the Christians re-purposed the holiday to honor the coming of Christ into the world. While the pagans celebrated with debauchery, the Christians made it a time of praising God and the gift of His Son. Jesus was almost certainly not born at this time of year, but more likely in the spring. However, we should take time to honor God for the beautiful design of our planet that makes life possible, and the wonderful gift of Jesus that makes eternal life possible.
Why do we need Christmas? That’s a question worth asking. There are many people who dislike Christmas, and they have various reasons. I have some reasons why I think we need Christmas.
For those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, Christmas comes at the time of the winter solstice when daylight seems much too short. Christmas serves to cheer us up and get us through those winter doldrums. That leads to a second reason–the decorations and especially the lights which bring beauty and cheer, even on those cold, dark days.
A third reason is the emphasis on family at Christmas. It seems that everyone wants to spend time with family and those we love as we carry on the Christmas traditions we enjoy. Related to that is the fourth reason, and that is giving. We enjoy giving to others. Jesus said there is more joy in giving than in receiving (Acts 20:35). We naturally tend to want others to give to us. But when we give to others, we learn that what Jesus said was true.