Four Other Meanings of the Moon

When the eclipse of the sun coincided with the Annunciation on April 8, many Catholics rightly recalled that Mary is traditionally likened to the moon, an image well expressed by Fulton Sheen (The World’s First Love):

God, Who made the sun, also made the moon. The moon does not take away from the brilliance of the sun. The moon would be only a burnt-out cinder floating in the immensity of space were it not for the sun. All its light is reflected from the sun. The Blessed Mother reflects her Divine Son; without Him, she is nothing. With Him, she is the Mother of Men.

But did you know that the Catechism recognizes four other meanings of the moon, including one relevant to the Easter season?

The first is that the moon, together with the sun, represents the interdependence of all creatures: “God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient.” [340]

The moon’s dependence on the sun was recognized by the earliest Greek philosophers, in how the bulge of a crescent moon always faces towards the sun, while its two points go directly away. The moon seemed a kind of an arrow or indicator, always pointing towards the sun.

The Genesis creation account represents the sun and moon as if they, considered together, united the previously separated day and night: “God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night.” (1:16) Hebrew poetical language typically thus unites the moon with the sun: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon” (Joshua 10:12); and “Praise Him, sun and moon.” (Ps 148:3)

The exact coincidence of the apparent magnitude of each, which we all noted on April 8, surely is meant to encourage our spontaneous grouping of the one with the other: imagine how different it would be if the moon appeared, say, one-tenth the size of the sun.

The second meaning of the moon is that it signifies the Church.  So Vatican II begins:

Christ is the light of humanity; and it is, accordingly, the heart-felt desire of this sacred Council, being gathered together in the Holy Spirit, that, by proclaiming his Gospel to every creature, it may bring to all men that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church. (Lumen Gentium 1)

Madonna and Child by Sassoferrato (Giovanni Battista Salvi), c. 1650 [Vatican Museum, Room XIV]. The Blessed Virgin is seated on clouds; “her feet resting on the half moon.”

These words open the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. By choosing this starting point, the Council demonstrates that the article of faith about the Church depends entirely on the articles concerning Christ Jesus. The Church has no other light than Christ’s; according to a favorite image of the Church Fathers, the Church is like the moon, all its light reflected from the sun.

From this we can take a rule for judging reforms following Vatican II: Do they make the Church, and everything about her, resplendent like the moon?  Do they make the Church (its priests, its rites, its architecture) as if transparent, so that others see not men but Christ?  Is the meaning of those reforms “vertical,” towards the sun, more than “horizontal,” along the earth?

A third meaning of the moon is that it stands for the body, because it waxes and wanes, like the course of a human life, and then it vanishes at the new moon, just as the body gives out, and we die.

The sun, in contrast, stands for the spirit.  Just as the spirit, on a classical (not Cartesian) understanding, vivifies the body, which becomes a genuine living thing, really alive (and not merely a lifeless machine, which is manipulated but remains truly dead), so the sun, which has its own light, confers light upon the moon.  But that which does not have its own life must die.  And that which does not have its own light must vanish.

The Catechism introduces this third meaning when it quotes St. Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 89. Consider the following Messianic prophecy in verses 36-38:

Once have I sworn by my holiness: I will not lie unto David:
His seed shall endure for ever.
And his throne as the sun before me: and as the moon perfect for ever, and a faithful witness in heaven.

St. Augustine comments that “The Scriptures usually signify by the moon the mortality of this flesh, because of its increasings and decreasings, because of its transitory nature.”  In mentioning both the sun and the moon, he says, the Psalmist is teaching that the Messiah will be raised and continue to live both spiritually (the sun) and bodily (the moon).  The moon is “perfect for ever,” because his resurrected body, and ours, will never die.

“I beseech you,” says Augustine, “hear this again more clearly, and remember it: for I know that some understand, while others are yet enquiring perhaps what I meant.” And now comes the line quoted in the Catechism, ”There is no article of the Christian faith which has encountered such contradiction as that of the resurrection of the flesh.” (n. 996, note 551)

Thus the fourth meaning, then, is that the full moon in particular stands for the perfect, resurrected body.

I suggest that couples in love intimate this.  A full moon is especially meaningful for them.  Why?  Because it portends the eternity of their love and the immortality of the fruits of their love.

I asked friends and no one had an answer: Why do you suppose God ordained that the Passover should be celebrated at the full moon?  (Exodus 12:18)  They had never thought about it.  What about: so that, after the Lamb was slain, we might look either at his mother and her faith, or up at the sky, and see a sign of his resurrection?


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Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI. You can follow him on X, @michael_pakaluk