December 6, 2022

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The Magi and the Star. Questions of science and those of faith

The comet, drawn and seen by Giotto in 1301, was later identified with Halley’s Comet. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua – Archive

Saint Lucia’s Comet passed away at dawn on December 13 and 14. It was discovered on January 3, 2021 by astronomer Gregory J. Leonard in Arizona. Comet Leonard, technically C/2021 A1, says right away that we won’t see it anymore: the “C” abbreviation indicates that this celestial body’s path is open like a hyperbola and that it was discovered at the beginning of 2021.

Exactly one year after its discovery, tomorrow, January 3, the comet should pass through perihelion, the point of lowest distance from the sun. After that, he will leave us forever.

Each birthday, he discusses his comet, where it came from, what it is made of, and what information it brings: in 2018 46P / Wirtanen, in 2019 the interstellar comet 2I / Borisov, in 2020 Erasmus. We seek answers to important questions such as what is in the interstellar space.

As it was in the time of Jesus, when the culprit that is placed today in our children’s family appeared, but questions of nature overlap more easily with questions of spirituality.

“Where is the King of the Jews born?” We saw his star rising and we came to worship him ”(Matthew 2, 2), said the Magi from the East. The star “preceded them” (Matthew 2, 9). The nature of this star has been discussed over and over again.

Was it a comet or a star? The Bible speaks of a general astronomical event (in Greek Aster). But Giotto photographed a comet in the Scroveny Church after he saw the comet of 1301, most likely Halley’s Comet that also appeared in 12 BC and that it really contained something special.

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It was Edmund Halley who defined it in 1705. It was a victory for the gravitational theory of Isaac Newton, which failed to include these celestial bodies in his world system. after his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687) The altars of the history of science were enshrined.

The work put an end to the dispute over who occupied the center of the world, the Earth or the Sun. But astronomical controversies did not hold back at the time, including those related to the nature of comets. Tycho Brahe showed that comets pass under the moon and revolve around the sun and are not vapors in the earth’s atmosphere as the philosophers of Aristotle wanted.

Astronomers have argued about how to calculate the trajectories. Philosophers have sought conceptual solutions to explain the nature of comets, because one cannot rely on direct experience. Theologians have struggled with the changing and imperfect nature of the heavens witnessed by the star of the Magi.

Galileo Galilei became involved in a dispute over the nature of comets by waging war with Jesuit Orazio Grassi. Earth or the sun in the center, the sky made of ordinary matter or not? From the controversy of Galilei’s drawing, one of his most successful books, attacker (1623), where he acknowledged that nature is written in mathematical letters.

Even theologians felt challenged. Catholics and Protestants. “Philosophical theories about the star of the Magi” ( Philosophical theories about the star of the Magi) It is the title of the theses discussed on January 7, 1611 in Basel by Johann Jacob von Brunn, a disciple of the Protestant theologian Johann Georg Gross.

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There are 25 theses to help theologians understand the star of the Magi, if it really existed, and if so, how to explain the story. The shortness of the text does not allow us to know whether the oral discussion has deepened, but it nevertheless provides evidence of the implications of scholarly debates on issues of faith.

To begin with, we try to contextualize the origin of the belief: if the Magi followed the star, they followed it because in their astrological culture, a similar event had political significance. Second, it was asserted that the celestial body was really a star, not a comet, not an angel, and not the Holy Spirit. What was the supernatural content of the Bible then? The human mind demanded an explanation of what the senses perceive, but the soul sensed that there was more.

Science today tells us a lot about comets and we look elsewhere for celestial messages. How can the star of the Magi call us to keep reason and faith together? Pushing the mind hard leads to an understanding of what we are made of and what the world is made of. Understanding the world pushes faith deeper, to believe better, and above all to love better. And when, who knows, we have understood everything, perhaps we will also know how to remain before the mystery of our humanity, blessed by that which was born of a woman so beautiful that even a star in the sky could not stop in amazement to look at it.

The little yellow comet drawn by Giotto, watch the video

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