All through December, Comet ISON should show up in the night sky, pointing its flaming arrow back at the sun.
On Nov. 28, ISON (comets usually get their names from their discoverer, in this case the International Scientific Optical Network in Russia) passed through the sun’s incandescent atmosphere. Now what’s left of it is headed back towards icy outer space.
Unfortunately, the comet’s remains probably won’t be visible in the northern hemisphere as they pass close by the Little Dipper and the north star, Polaris, round Christmas time.
Still, the coincidence of timing is too much for me to ignore. Could the star that the Bible says hovered over Bethlehem have been a comet?
With its bright head and long glowing tail, comets might seem to point at something below them. Although comets were commonly considered omens of bad luck in those days, a comet seems a more likely symbol for identifying a particular location than any conjunction of planets or a flaring supernova.
Indeed, Chinese and Korean astronomers did record a comet, around 5 BC, that apparently hung in the skies for 70 nights.
And when astronomers work the cycle of Halley’s comet backwards, they conclude that it would have passed earth in 12 BC.
Granted, neither of those happened in the year zero. They couldn’t, because the Roman counting system didn’t have a zero. So the calendar switched over directly from 1 BC to 1 AD.
Well, no, actually, it didn’t. The Roman Empire kept right on counting years the way it always had. No one paid attention to a baby’s birth in a small village in a troublesome corner of the empire for some time.
It wasn’t until some 525 years later that a monk named Dionysius Exiguus applied the same process as Halley’s astronomers—he worked backwards, using known historic records, to identify the year that Jesus was born.
Unfortunately, he got it wrong.
That’s because Roman numerals made calculations very difficult. Just try multiplying MMXIII by XXXLXV, minus XXI, without converting Roman numerals into Arabic notation. (If you must know, that’s the number of days since Jesus’ birth, not counting leap years, which Julius Caesar also miscalculated around 40 years before Jesus.)
Also because Exiguus didn’t have zero to work with. Zero didn’t show up in European mathematics until about 75 years after Exiguus died.
But even more, because Exiguus didn’t set out to define the date of Jesus’ birth. He merely wanted to establish a consistent date when all Catholic churches would celebrate Easter. Splitting AD from BC was a by-product of religious liturgy.
So the actual year when Christmas happened is somewhat uncertain.
Does it matter? I don’t think so. A faith that requires Jesus to be born on exactly December 25, in the year 1 AD, will be fragile, easily shattered by contrary evidence.
His reality doesn’t depend on a date-stamped birth certificate. Or on DNA profiles. It depends on the effect he has had, and continues to have, on us humans.
The person matters, not the date or the star.