Something exciting is coming our way, and we don’t even have to leave our backyards to experience it.
Just after sunset, step outside and look up at the Western sky. With your naked eye alone, you should be able to see two bright lights in close proximity. With a telescope, you can make out the rings of Saturn on the smaller planet, closely positioned next to Venus. Do this every night for the next week, and you will witness something inhabitants of Earth haven’t seen since the Middle Ages.
The great Jupiter Saturn Conjunction of 2020 will reach its height on December 21, when their orbits will be the closest they’ve been on record in 800 years.
December 21 is significant for a couple of reasons. One, it is the Solstice, the official beginning of winter. This is the point when daytime is at its shortest in the northern hemisphere and at its longest in the southern hemisphere. Second, and more impactful for Christians, is the date’s proximity to Christmas. We’ve all learned about the Christmas Star that guided the wise men to Jesus, so this celestial occurrence holds additional meaning as we approach the celebration of the birth of our Lord.
The Bible records the story in Matthew 2:1-11. Verses 1 and 2 say: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”
While theories abound as to the makeup of that special “star,” one is that the Star of Bethlehem that guided the three wise men to the place of Jesus Christ’s birth may have been a great conjunction. History tells us that several conjunctions occurred “within 10 years of the chronological point now taken as the beginning of the Christian era.”
17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler posited that it was the of Jupiter and Saturn that created the star of Bethlehem. During that time period, especially, such an event would have been of religious and astrological significance. The great conjunction recorded for that time period would have appeared to observers in Babylon as one brilliant star, especially as they travelled to Bethlehem in the west.
And now we get to relive what the night sky would have looked like after the Lord our Savior was born. And we get more than one night to do it, as the event has already started. Stargazers can actually see the planets coming closer together in this next week leading up to the big event. With clear skies and an unobstructed view, you will recognize Jupiter as the larger planet, then notice Saturn beside it. You can differentiate these planets from neighboring stars because they won’t “twinkle” as stars do. Planets shine steadily.
Then, on December 21, we get to enjoy this once-in-many-lifetimes spectacle some are calling the Christmas Kiss. The conjunction will appear low in the western sky for roughly an hour after sunset. Look for the planets low in the south-west in the hour after sunset when the two giant planets will appear just a tenth of a degree apart. To give you some idea of how the planets will appear to us, they will be no further than the thickness of a dime!