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The Winter Solstice

21 Dec 2020

There is considerable excitement at the prospect of a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on the evening of Monday 21 December, the winter solstice; this is the first time that this conjunction has been visible since 1226. It has been suggested that the star of Bethlehem in the Gospel story may have been such a phenomenon: thus there was a dramatic conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in 2 BC.

But there have been other ideas about what the star of Bethlehem may have been. The Irish theologian Augustinus, in the treatise on miracles that he wrote in AD 655, worried that in leading the Magi to Bethlehem (‘like an arrow – but moving somewhat more slowly, to match the pace of those who followed’) the star would have abandoned its normal position in the heavens, upsetting the cosmic order. He suggested accordingly that the ‘star’ might really have been ‘aerial fire’, or an angel, or even the Holy Spirit in visible form. ‘For even as the Holy Spirit later descended in fire upon the apostles... so in the semblance of a star it led the Magi to the Lord.’

For the whole of Augustinus’ discussion of the star, see John Carey, King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings (Dublin: Four Courts, 2000), pp. 64-6.

Roinn na Sean- agus na Meán-Ghaeilge

Department of Early and Medieval Irish

Bloc A, Urlár na Talún, Áras Uí Rathaille / Block A, Ground Floor, O'Rahilly Building, UCC, Cork