This past Sunday was the feast of the Three Kings which used to land predictably on January 6th, not a day when everyone went to Church, but the 12th day of Christmas, marking the end of the Christmas celebration. As I listened to the readings, I felt a certain awe about the astronomy of it. Not but that all the stars of all nights belong to God, as I have already said, but because if it really is true that Jesus was born on September 11 of 3 BC, on which evening the Sun shone in the constellation Virgo with the crescent Moon gleaming by its feet, then I must acknowledge that God orders the universe in even more minute detail than I had ever imagined. I have read Revelations 12:1-3 hundreds of times; I know of various interpretations, and I know that truth always has many levels of contact and meaning. Certainly Mary is the Virgin clothed with the Sun, and our miraculous Image of Guadalupe is not the only one with the crescent Moon at her feet. But that is not all.
Wait; I am speaking in riddles. Let me explain.
The constellations are imaginary pictures drawn around the natural, but purely visual, groupings of the stars. As the year goes by, these constellations rise and set with the seasons, and at a given time of each year, the sun stands directly between us and one or another of these twelve. Astrologers, imagining that the stars are fixed in the sky and that the Sun moves through them as it goes round the earth, will say that the Sun sits within one of the constellations.
Not every constellation lies in the path of the sun, however, even its imaginary path. The Big Dipper, for example, is always so far in the northern sky that the path of the sun never passes near its stars. The constellations that lie “in the path of the Sun” are called the zodiac – and many of them are animals of the celestial zoo – a lion, a crab, and so forth, but also the twin boys Castor and Pollux, Virgo the virgin, and so forth.
So in September, the Sun passes through the constellation Virgo.
The Moon also crosses the sky in the same basic path as the Sun’s because it orbits the earth in such a way as to pass through the zodiac; the Moon therefore appears from night to night with different parts of the zodiac in its background. In September, when the Sun is “in” Virgo, the Moon must also be in Virgo part of the time, for the New Moon is always “near” the Sun in the sky. All this is ordinary astronomy; nothing unusual.
Now, Rev 12:1-3 says that “a great sign appeared in the heavens, a woman clothed with the sun and the Moon at her feet and on her head was a crown of 12 stars.” This is John’s vision. It never crossed my mind that it might be an astronomical reference to the sky on the night of the birth of Jesus. For one thing, I assumed that every culture had its own names for the constellations, and that Virgo would not be known to St. John anyway.
But Greek and Hebrew culture did intersect, and Virgo was a virgin constellation in both cultures. Therefore it could be that Rev 12:1-3 is actually a description of the starry sky on a particular date.
Indeed, on the 11th day of September in 3 BC, the Sun lay within Virgo, as if illumining the virgin from within, and at her feet, the crescent Moon shone briefly before setting. Furthermore, in 3 BC, September 11 was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year’s Day that celebrates the creation of the world and the recreation of life after the flood of Noah.
As we have already indicated, it lies within the scriptural time frame for the birth of Jesus, and, as a birthdate for Jesus, it provides an awesome glimpse into the detail and humor of God’s handiwork. It is none of the dates so eagerly offered for his birth by merely superstitious astrologers, but it is its own date, chosen from the creation of the universe as the perfect moment for the birth of Jesus and symbolically recorded in the vision of St. John.
Each detail comes from the hand of God as if it were the main story – no by-products, no mere embellishments; each thing created in its own unexpected perfection. Such were my thoughts for this feast, leading to a deepened sense of providence.