Columnist plans a little winter solstice stargazing

Jim Redwine

Peg bought me a telescope for my birthday. With the assigned birthday of Jesus rapidly approaching, Peg and I are eagerly anticipating a view of the Christmas Star on 2020’s winter solstice, at 4:02 a.m. Dec. 21; although we plan to take what the military might call a “gentleman’s” approach and start our search about 6 p.m. that day. We see no need to get up at the crack of dawn to “discover” the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the southwest sky. After all, the Milky Way galaxy has been around almost from the beginning of the universe, that is 13.7 billion years, so billions of other humans have already seen the “Star in the east.”

According to the Gospel of Matthew, wise men from the east, probably Babylonia or Persia, while looking to the west toward Bethlehem observed the astonishingly bright “star.” Some scholars posit they may have related it to the messianic prophecies contained in the Old Testament book of Malachi, “Unto you shall the sun of righteousness arise and healing is in his wings.” A clue as to the birth of this promised messenger was the term “sun.” As the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, marked the return of all the good things brought by sunlight, many philosophers and theologians have attached the birth of Jesus to the time of that event on the celestial calendar. And, since nine months before December’s Winter Solstice is the Vernal or Spring Equinox, many have postulated that the Immaculate Conception was in March of that same year.

Of course, these concepts are part of the Christian tradition. In the United States, Article I of our Constitution guarantees each of us the right to worship or not worship as we see fit. I am neither qualified nor inclined to give ecclesiastical advice. I am referring to the astronomical phenomenon of what may have been taken as a sign by heavenly observers during eight months of 7 B.C. when Jupiter and Saturn appeared in conjunction to give the appearance of an extremely bright star.

And my only qualifications to give opinions on stargazing are that I have seen the Broadway musical "Hair," have surfed the Internet for historical information and have been given a telescope. On the other hand, I offer the observation that that is not unlike the so-called authority of cable news anchors on many other subjects.

Anyway, when it comes to Jesus’ birthdate no one really knows. But we do know that Pope Julius I in 336 A.D. wanted to counteract the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice when he decreed Dec. 25 to be the date of Jesus’ birth. The pope was using the Roman calendar not the Gregorian calendar, ergo the actual date of the Winter Solstice varied from the 25th. Regardless, by first setting Jesus’ birthdate in December scholars could then subtract nine months and set His conception in March at the Vernal Equinox.

Behind our cabin at JPeg Osage Ranch is a high hill we call Peg’s Peak or Mogul Margaret’s Mountain. When the galaxy gets all aligned on December 21, Peg and I plan to go to the top of our promontory and gaze upon the Christmas Star that has not been seen in this configuration for 800 years. We are trying to convince ourselves that we will again be atop our observatory the next time the Christmas Star appears, which will be March 2080. On the other hand, it might be prudent for us to celebrate now. Merry Christmas!