I witnessed the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn Monday evening, joining people worldwide who were able to view it.
In this astronomical event, Saturn and Jupiter appear to line up briefly before swapping their position in the evening sky. I've read that the two planets are roughly 450 million miles apart, but to me and everyone else, they looked like two unblinking white dots. In fact, a popular joke on social media contrasts expectations, a magnificent star formation with long, radiant beams, with the reality of looking at it with the naked eye: two bright blips close to each other.
I attempted, with a modest amount of success, to photograph the event. While I didn't achieve quite the results I wanted (Saturn looked like a white, deflated ball) at least four of Jupiter's moons were visible in the images. Still, I was impressed with the ability of the newsroom's Nikon AFS 80-200mm lens to give a little more detail than I could see with binoculars.
There's also a ton of other information about the astronomical formation available on the Great Wild Internet with little to no factual backing. As a person whose line of work relies on facts rather than unverified hearsay, I tread that ground cautiously.
The planetary formation is not a star, yet it has been called the "Christmas Star" because of its appearance at this time of year. Some early astronomers speculated that the formation may have been visible and lingering around the time Jesus Christ was born, and that it may have been what is referred to in the Gospel of Matthew as the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Magi to Christ's birthplace.
Because planets, stars and other objects in the night sky are bound by the laws of physics, it has been possible to use computer modeling to trace the paths of Jupiter and Saturn back to the time in question, which has revealed the Great Conjunction probably was not the Star of Bethlehem. Other planetary conjunctions, along with appearances of various comets, are more likely candidates.
So, does this mean we shouldn't take inspiration from a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event?
My reasoning is this. Whether what we witnessed Monday evening is or is not what inspired learned men from other countries to seek out an infant who they believed would change the world, there is no denying the beauty and wonder of unusual natural events. Faith often is described as transcending what is known or what can be observed.
If observing two planets in an unusual formation inspires people to be kind to one another, to treat others with dignity and respect, and to look forward with optimism in spite of a global pandemic that has taken many lives, then I really am not concerned what people call the event. If it helps people get past their differences and moves us in the right direction, I hope 2021 is filled with inspirational signs from the natural world.
I would argue that gazing upon the beauty of the earth and the sky ought to make us a little more curious about how those things came to be, and it certainly is something that is beyond human creation.