JRR Tolkien, the star of Bethlehem, and the fairy-story that came true

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JRR Tolkien, the creator of "The Hobbit," once wrote that his goal as an author was to give his readers "the Consolation of the Happy Ending." That consolation takes place at the point in the story when all hope is lost, when disaster seems certain—then Joy breaks through, catching the reader by surprise. In a 1964 essay, Tolkien called that instant "a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief."

Tolkien even coined a word for the moment when the light of deliverance breaks through the darkness of despair. He called it "eucatastrophe." When evil fails and righteousness suddenly triumphs, the reader feels Joy—"a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears."

Is the Joy of eucatastrophe just a literary device for manipulating the reader's emotions? No. This same sudden glimpse of Joy, Tolkien wrote, can be found in our own world: "In the eucatastrophe we see in a brief vision . . .  a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world." Evangelium is Latin for "good news," the message of Jesus Christ.

Tolkien went on to compare the Christian Gospel, the story of Jesus Christ, to "fairy-stories," the kind of fantasy tales (like "The Hobbit") that produce the Joy of "eucatastrophe," the consolation of the happy ending. The difference between the gospel story and fairy-stories, Tolkien said, is that the gospel is true: "This story has entered History and the primary world."

"The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history," Tolkien explained. "The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the 'inner consistency of reality.' There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits."

But is the story of the birth of Christ true? According to Matthew's Gospel, Jesus was born in the little village of Bethlehem, about five miles south of Jerusalem. Some Persian astrologers, the Magi, supposedly saw a star shining in the east, and they followed the star to Bethlehem and presented gifts to the baby Jesus. Is this the story Tolkien would have us believe is true?

Actually, some astonishing evidence has surfaced to support the Gospel account. Attorney Frederick Larson used a computer program to create a sky map for Jerusalem in the years 3 and 2 B.C. In his research, Larson discovered what he believes was the actual Star of Bethlehem.

Since ancient times, astrologers have associated the planet Jupiter with the birth of kings. In September 3 B.C., at the time of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Jupiter was in close conjunction with the "king star," Regulus. Larson believes that when the "king planet" came in conjunction with the "king star" on the Jewish New Year, the Magi believed it signaled the birth of the King of the Jews.

In his DVD documentary "The Star of Bethlehem," Larson explains that Jupiter would have been visible near Regulus from September 3 B.C. through June 2 B.C. After seeing the "king star" rising in the east, the Magi journeyed to Jerusalem to find the newborn king. After their audience with King Herod, the Magi left Jerusalem and turned south to Bethlehem.

"To qualify as the Star," Larson said, "Jupiter would have to have been ahead of the Magi as they trekked south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Sure enough, in December of 2 BC if the Magi looked south in the wee hours, there hung the Planet of Kings over the city of Messiah's birth."
At that time, Jupiter exhibited what astronomers call "retrograde motion" so that it appeared from Earth to have temporarily stopped in its orbit, relative to the background stars. The Magi would have noticed when the "king planet" came to a stop, exactly as described in Matthew 2:9: ". . . and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was."

This happened on December 25, 2 B.C. That's the date we celebrate as Christmas—and it's the date that Joy, the consolation of the happy ending, entered History. Joy came into the world—"Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief." And that is why we sing on Christmas: "Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King!"