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from issue no. 09 - 2009

The Church is compared to the moon

Reflected light

The Church is compared to the moon because it shines not with its own light, but with that of Christ. Fulget Ecclesia non suo sed Christi lumine, St Ambrose writes

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

The fresco of Giusto de’ Menabuoi, XIV century, which adorns the dome of the Baptistry of Padua Cathedral <BR>[© Cultural Heritage Office of Padua diocese]

The fresco of Giusto de’ Menabuoi, XIV century, which adorns the dome of the Baptistry of Padua Cathedral
[© Cultural Heritage Office of Padua diocese]

In a homily devoted to St Ambrose on 7 December 1958, when he was Archbishop of Milan, Giovanni Battista Montini made mention of a series of metaphors designed to outline the “real and complex concept of the Church” of his saintly predecessor in the episcopal see of Milan. “The most flowery symbolism, glittering with metaphors and analogies, works the Church in wherever a thought of God surfaces on mankind to be saved: the Church is ship, the Church is ark, the Church is workshop, the Church is temple, the Church is City of God; the Church is compared even to the moon, in whose stages of waning and waxing is reflected the alternating story of the Church that wanes and waxes, and that never fails, because “fulget Ecclesia non suo sed Christi lumine”, it shines not with its own light but with that of Christ” (Milan speeches and writings, vol. II: 1954-1963, pp. 2462-2463).
Hugo Rahner, the great Jesuit patrologist, brother of the famous (at least until a few years ago) Karl Rahner, in those same years devoted himself to investigating some of these images of the Church in the Greek and Latin Fathers. In particular, he addressed the question of the relationship that early Christianity established with lore and myths about the sun and the moon adopted as images of Christ and the Church. He did so in some writings that are currently chapters of two of his works entitled respectively Griechische Mythen in christlicher Deutung, Zürich 1957/Basel 1984; (Greek myths and Christian mystery, New York 1971, which will be referred to here as Myths) and Symbole der Kirche. Die Ekklesiolgie der Väter, Salzburg 1964 (Symbols of the Church, referred to here as Symbols). To simplify I shall say that, as the titles given to those chapters, “The Christian mystery of the sun and the moon” and “Mysterium lunae”, the subject of the one is Christ as the true sun, and of the other the Church as true moon. I don’t intend to summarize the two texts. It would be impossible and unnecessary. They are readily available. The intention is simply to draw some possible food for thought.
Let me begin by saying that all that science and ancient poetry, beginning with the most natural daily observation, had developed around the sun and the moon was adopted, at least by one particular line of Greek exegesis and by that of Ambrose and Augustine, who referred to it in part – in part, let’s say, because even more than the dangerous mazes of allegory, they use the method of analogy, that is of going back to the Creator from the created, to reality from its figures – in order to illustrate the great mystery of Christ and the Church, as Paul calls it in the Epistle to the Ephesians 5, 32. The words of Empedocles handed down by Plutarch: “The sun has rays that dart in lively fashion, while gracious is the light of the moon”, or those of Priscus: “The moon is weak thus it is fruitful”, or even those of Anaxagoras already mentioned by Plato and then by Hippolytus Romanus: “The moon does not possess its own light, but receives it from the sun” (see Symbols, p. 100, Please note that all page references are to the original German editions), along with many others, were to be, extremely evocative in illustration of that “great mystery”.
Contrary to the opinion which tends to see a sign of weakness of the Christian faith in the adoption of images proper to the pagan world – writes Rahner – “thanks to the unshakable faith in the real Resurrection of Christ, the Christian who reflected in the spirit of antiquity enjoyed the wonderful freedom of introducing into the beautiful circle of images that populated his world the mystery of the death, the sepulchral repose and the Resurrection of the Lord” (Myths, p. 152).
Now, as everyone knows, according to the pagan calendar the first day after the Sabbath, the day of the Resurrection of the Lord, came the day of the Sun. This was soon seen by the early Christians as a providential coincidence. Think about what it meant for the Emperor Constantine, a former sun worshiper who by virtue of this was able to make his and to promote not only the celebration of Sunday, but the solemn Sunday celebration of Easter and the Holy Vigil throughout the empire. Moreover, this coincidence was not disdained even by Augustine, “who had recognized the futility of opposing the use of the celestial names for the days of the week” (Myths, p. 147), nor by Jerome, who writes: “The day of Resurrection, this is our day. And if the pagans call it dies Solis we gladly accept that name: today the light is arisen, today the Sun of righteousness has lit up” (Myths, p. 145). Faith in the reality of the Resurrection and freedom, one might say, more than faith and culture. But let’s proceed.
The early Christians not only knew how to see in the sun (Helios), the shining image of the true Sun of righteousness, but, also prompted in this by the numerous occurrences in Scripture, they saw in the moon (Selene) “the symbol of that maternally welcoming entity humbly receptive of the light, which became a living reality in Mary and the Church” (Myths, p. 201).
We shall now focus precisely on the moon, and on the distinguishing features that the Fathers saw suited the Church, features that even today can evoke an image that matches its nature and its task.

Christ represented in the likeness of Helios (the Sun) ascending to heaven on his chariot, third-century mosaic in the vault of the Mausoleum of the Giulii inside the Vatican Necropolis, near the tomb of Peter [© Fabric 
of Saint Peter’s in the Vatican]

Christ represented in the likeness of Helios (the Sun) ascending to heaven on his chariot, third-century mosaic in the vault of the Mausoleum of the Giulii inside the Vatican Necropolis, near the tomb of Peter [© Fabric of Saint Peter’s in the Vatican]

The waning moon
Rahner primarily treats the waning moon as an image of Christ and the Church.
Of Christ, because the waxing and waning of the moon is not a defect, but rather what was established by God for seeds and plants, dew and tides to grow. As Ambrose writes in the Exameron (IV, 8, 32), “the moon wanes to fill the elements. This is a great mystery. This power was given it by He who bestowed grace on all. So that it may fill He annihilated [exinanivit] it, He who also annihilated Himself to come down among us; He came down among us to raise everyone up: He “ascended above the heavens”, says Scripture, “to fulfill all things”. He who had been annihilated, filled the Apostles with His fullness. So that one of them says: “From His fullness we have all received”. So the moon is the messenger of the mystery of Christ”(cf. Symbols, p. 129). Thus, in as far as it appears annihilated, (exinanire), the moon announces the mystery of Christ.
But it is even more the image of the Church militant. In the Exameron Ambrose again writes: “The Church has its stages, of persecution, that is, and of peace. It seems to wane, like the moon, but it is not so”. In fact its disappearing is actually a decrease in luminous intensity. “The moon undergoes a decrease in light not in the body... The lunar disc remains intact” (IV, 2, 7). The Church is not destined to a dialectic of death and resurrection. It’s simply that its historical destiny is comparable to the phases of the moon: “In the phenomenon of the lunar phases the mystery of the Church luminous and dying is symbolically depicted” (Symbols, p. 107). For the Eastern Catholic tradition, as represented, for example, by Cyril of Alexandria, as for the Western, represented by Ambrose, the dying of the Church is neither a fading nor a becoming superfluous. An idea that instead surfaced in Origen, who in an undue anticipation of eschatology, risked bringing about the disappearance of the value of the Church in time and conversely canceling the distance between the Christians enlightened by Christ and Christ himself. Ambrose, on the contrary “exalts the Church as real moon: ‘When the moon, in which, based on the sayings of the prophets, we see the image of the Church, is reborn to complete its nocturnal journey, it is at first hidden from us by dark shadows. But slowly its horns are pervaded by light and then when it sets itself facing the sun it shines with the splendor of the former’s sparkle’”(Myths, p. 216).
Even more than for its stages, therefore, the moon is the image of the Church because it shines, but not of its own light. Cyril: “The Church is bathed by the divine light of Christ, which is the only light in the realm of souls. So there is one single light; in this one light, however, the Church shines, which is not however Christ himself” (Symbols, p. 120). And Ambrose echoes him: “The moon however is certainly not of little consequence, which bears the image of the beloved Church [dilecta]. ...The Church shines not of its own light, but with that of Christ and takes its own splendor from the Sun of righteousness, so that it can say ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me’. You are indeed happy, moon, that have merited so great a sign! Happy not for your new moons, but for being a sign of the Church; with the new moons in fact you render service [servis], because you are a sign of the Church you are loved [diligeris]”, Exameron IV, 8, 32. This is why the true moon is the Church because, Ambrose seems to say, in it one passes from being servants to the bliss of being loved. In short, even more than because of its alternating phases, the moon is the image of the Church because it receives light from the sun, from which it also derives its fertility.

The woman garbed with the sun, detail of the fresco depicting the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse, on the back wall of the Basilica of San Pietro al Monte, Civate (Lecco)  [© T.P.FotoGrafica of Emanuele Tonoli]

The woman garbed with the sun, detail of the fresco depicting the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse, on the back wall of the Basilica of San Pietro al Monte, Civate (Lecco) [© T.P.FotoGrafica of Emanuele Tonoli]

The parturient moon
Because it is loved by Christ, the Church generates. It is fruitful only because united to Him. The moon was able to constitute a fascinating image of this dogmatic truth also. Indeed, in virtue of the simple observation of the tides and natural cycles, the moon’s bond with all that is wet (that is, bound to water) and hot, and hence with the fecundity of creation, was well represented in Greek and Roman imagery. From the philosophical-scientific to the poetic. From Aristotle to Plutarch, from Apuleius to Macrobius, the moon is “maternal mediatrix between the intense and brilliant light of the sun and the dark earth; and dispenser of night dew, lady and mother of all that is born and grows” (Symbols, p. 140).
In this case, however, the Fathers had no references available in Scripture, as they had for the waning moon, and also had to clear the field of the idolatrous idea widespread among the pagans of the divine nature of the moon (which they did by showing, in the commentary on the Book of Genesis, that the sun and moon were created after the animals and plants: a sign that the birth and growth of these depend primarily on the goodness of the Creator and not on the moon’s influence). But both in scientific inquiry and common observation it was so obvious that everything that had any relation with water, and thus with fertility, depended on the moon (see Symbols, p. 153) that this symbolism was able to take shape in delineating the power of life which the Church dispenses in baptism. Especially in some Greek Fathers, such as Methodius of Philippi and Anastasius the Sinaite, for whom the name Selene itself comes from “selas nepion” which in Greek means “light of the children”, but also in Ambrose and Maximus of Turin, from whom the symbolism of the parturient moon then came down to the Middle Ages and Dante.
But the moon is a maternal dispenser of a fruitful water because “it in its turn is dominated by the penetrating and radiant light of Helios” (Symbols, p. 156). As the fertilizing power of lunar water resides in its being tepid, that is in its relationship with the sun, in baptism also the water is generative only because inflamed by Christ. “The Christian is born from the ‘inflamed water’ (Firmicus Maternus) of baptism, that the Sun, Christ, has made fruitful and Selene, the Church, has spread” (Myths, pp. 220-221).
And it is precisely because of baptismal rebirth that Easter is not celebrated on a fixed date, but in correspondence with the new Spring moon. Augustine explains in Epistola 55 in response to a specific question addressed to him: “Precisely in view of the beginning of a new life, especially in view of the new man with whom we are commanded to clothe ourselves by stripping ourselves of the old, by purifying ourselves from the old leaven to be a new dough, for which Christ our Passover was sacrificed, precisely in view of this newness of life the first month of the year was appointed for this celebration, which is therefore called the month of the new crops [mensis novorum]” (3, 5). And Rahner comments: “The Paschal mystery of death and resurrection is accomplished mainly because it is not just a historical commemoration of Christ’s salvific action that took place in a certain month of Nisan, but is something supernaturally present, because of which the light of the new sun is made to participate in a sacramental initiation” (Myths, pp. 164-165). Easter is not an empty summons to remember the past, but the passage from death to life in the sacrament.

<I>The Immaculate Conception</I>, Jusepe de Ribera, Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia (South Carolina, USA)

The Immaculate Conception, Jusepe de Ribera, Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia (South Carolina, USA)

The radiant moon
But baptismal regeneration is just the start: the goal of the mystery of the Church is the resurrection of the flesh. In other words, the mystery of the visible and earthly Church is of an eschatological order. Its earthly reality can be truly perceived only by looking at its final end. “The final permanere cum sole for Augustine is the essence of Christian hope” (Symbols, p. 162).
Well, for this truth also the Fathers drew on the images offered by the moon. They mainly opposed the crude superstitions and beliefs that were woven around the moon, but at the same time took advantage of them to communicate the hope of fulfillment.
Selene was in fact in ancient cosmology the star that marked the boundary between the regions of earth and those of heaven. All that stood above it was considered holy and unchangeable, but all that lay below it appeared dominated by fate, marked by corruption and mutability, so much so that the pagans feared that in eclipses the moon itself might be involved in lasting darkness. And they trusted to amulets and wizards to find some security, to be delivered from demons and fate.
The Christian message is that in baptism one is already beginning to live as “above the moon” and not only with the spirit. The providence of Christ replaces sublunar fate. “Already the Seer of Patmos had taught to regard the Church as the great woman who dwells in the moon, above all mutability, earthly corruptibility, the law of fate, above the realm of the spirit of this world” (Symbols, p. 167). And this precisely because the woman, who is both Mary and the Church at the same time, “is garbed with the sun, the Sun of righteousness which is Christ”, Augustine writes in the Comment on Psalm 142, 3 (cf. Myths, p. 210). “The Church is free from any demonic power in as much as it participates in the mystery of Christ’s immutability. ‘The sorcerers have no effect where every day the canticle of Christ is sung’ (Ambrose, Exameron IV, 8, 33). In fact, as Ambrose puts it in a fairly audacious expression, the Church, the spiritual Selene, ‘has as its sorcerer its Lord Jesus’” (Symbols, p. 169). The Church exists and endures only through the “Jesus attraction”, one could say with Ambrosian words of more recent coinage.
But secondly – and so we return to the words of Archbishop Montini with which we opened this article – “the extinguishing and renewing of the moon is also ‘for simple men a clear figure of the Church in which there is belief in the resurrection of the dead’. The constant changing of the moon represents very well the mortal nature of our body” (Symbols, p. 171). The fulfillment does not belong to the earth, we too await with all of creation the definitive redemption of our body. “The Church has thus been able to direct the gaze of its faithful to the blessed kingdom of the world beyond where only the ethereal fire of Christ shines” (Symbols, p. 171).
As one sees, many suggestions come from the mysterium lunae for an understanding of the nature proper to the Church and hence the action that befits it. The Church cannot claim to be the ultimate term in mans’ regard. In fact, the light that the Church gives sight of is not its own and the water that the Church continues to dispense comes from above. The image of the sun can never be assigned to the Church and its authority, even if in some moments of its history that dangerous shift has occurred (cf. the recent 2005 volume by Glauco Maria Cantarella, Il sole e la luna. La rivoluzione di Gregorio VII papa [The sun and the moon. The revolution of Pope Gregory VII]).
At the Angelus of 4 October last, Benedict XVI, referring to the second Synodal Assembly for Africa, which had just opened, said with his usual unmistakable simplicity: “It is not a matter of a study conference nor a programmatic assembly. Reports and discourses are heard in the hall, the participants debate in groups, but we all well know that we are not the leading lights: it is the Lord, His Holy Spirit, who guides the Church”.

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