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Jupiter, Saturn to put on ‘Christmas Star’ show Dec. 21

Two planets will appear to merge Dec. 21, which is giving rise to talk of the Star of Bethelhem

CLEVELAND — A once-every-two-decade conjunction involving the solar system’s two gas giants will give earthbound observers a look at a so-called “Christmas Star” on the winter solstice.

Come sunset Dec. 21 in any time zone around the world, Jupiter and Saturn seemingly will merge into a single bright point of light low in the western sky.

The Great Conjunction of 2020 will yield an astronomical sight involving the two planets unseen in nearly eight centuries.The last easily visible conjunction with such a small visual separation was March 4, 1226.

The two planets have been approaching conjunction — a point when planets or other bodies as seen from earth are near each other in the night sky — all year. That the conjunction is occurring near Christmas gives rise to talk about the Star of Bethlehem that the Gospel of Matthew describes.

But the description of the star “is a very minor part of the infancy narrative,” Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, said. “It’s so unimportant that Luke doesn’t talk about it and yet it has captured our imagination.”

It’s what the star represents — the birth of Jesus — that is the real story, Brother Consolmagno said.

“To me, asking ‘What was the star?’ is a lot of fun, but not particularly significant either astronomically or theologically. Nothing’s really at stake if it turns to be this explanation or that explanation,” Brother Consolmagno said.

Ideas about the Star of Bethlehem range from the natural — a great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter near the time of Jesus’ birth or a comet — to the supernatural as a sign from God.

The Jesuit astronomer encouraged people to take the time to look at the night sky any time.

Better yet, he said, “spend some time away from people, but also away from your house. Spend some time with nature and remember that God is there.”

— Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service

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