Nearly every year during the Nativity season printed journals and articles posted online flood us with the same resounding question: “What Was the Star of Bethlehem?”
Among the four canonical gospels, Matthew is the only one that mentions the “star of Bethlehem.”
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage’” (Matthew 2:1–2). Having learned from priests and scribes that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, king Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem. “And they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:9–11).
Not a few Christmas-triggered articles compete with one another seeking either to dismiss the historicity of the event or to find the best much for the “star of Bethlehem” among several scientifically proved celestial phenomena that have occurred between the years 6 B.C. and 4 A.D. the putative period during which the birth of our Lord is placed based on internal evidence (the closeness of Jesus’s birth to King Herod’s death) and external evidence (King Herod’s death in 4 B.C.)
There has been a lot of excitement this December regarding an astronomical phenomenon known as a great conjunction. This great conjunction, also known as a planetary conjunction, is an alignment of Jupiter and Saturn with Earth that is visible in our night sky. A great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn last came this close in the night sky nearly eight hundred years ago. However, this year for a few days beginning on December 21st (which also just so happens to be the winter solstice), these two planets aligned so closely that they could appear as a single point of bright light in the night sky. Because this year’s great conjunction occurs so near the date of Christmas, some have referred to this great conjunction as a “Christmas Star.”
Anyone familiar with the narratives about Christ’s birth is aware that a star led certain magi to the newborn Jesus—details that are found only in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 2:1-12 versus Luke 2:1-21). Was this star that appeared at Jesus’s birth a great conjunction, or was it some other kind of astronomical occurrence such as a supernova or comet? A close look at Matthew’s birth narrative indicates that the star seen by the magi cannot be reconciled easily with any natural, astronomical occurrence. First of all, it is by observing this star’s rising in the sky that the magi gain the knowledge that they must find “the newborn King of the Jews” (2:2) in Jerusalem where they travel from their distant “Eastern lands” (2:1). Moreover, this same star later leads them accurately from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, at which point the star finally stops above the house of Mary and Joseph where the newborn Jesus is to be found (2:9-11).
On December 11, 2019, Metropolitan Serapion and the clergy of the Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California, and Hawaii wrote a statement pronouncing that Christmas celebrations will be held in the diocese on both December 25 and January 7 (29 Kiakh) to better serve the pastoral needs of local congregants. Yet the pronouncement caused a stir among Copts globally. Such debates are not new. Immigrant parishes in North America at one point in their early history routinely celebrated Christmas on December 25 to retain congregants and serve the needs of early Copts scattered across Central Canada and the North Eastern United States. At the heart of such debates, past and present, is the tremendous influence of Pope Shenouda and the many meanings of belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt. In order to chart this history and offer insights on its contemporary significance, we begin with the challenges faced by early Copts in North America and then outline the changing nature of Coptic diasporic communities as a consequence of rising immigration from Upper Egypt, following the 2011 revolution.