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Celebrating the Equinox, the Moon, and Their Relationship with Easter
"Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair."St Francis of Assisi
The moon has inspired artists, poets, and romantics for centuries. It divides the day into night and affects the tides of the oceans. For Christians, the moon is one of the "great lights" that God made on the fourth day of creation. "God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good" (Genesis 1:16-18).
Keeping Up with the Moon
In a few weeks, we will celebrate the coming of spring with the moon's equinox. On the equinox, the length of day and night is nearly equal in all parts of the world. On the March equinox, the Sun crosses the equator from south to north. If you were standing on the equator, the Sun would pass directly overhead on its way north. Equinoxes are the only two times a year that the Sun rises due east and sets due west for everyone on Earth! After the spring equinox, the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the Sun, which is why we start to get longer, sunnier days.
This year, the spring equinox falls on Thursday, March 19, which is a 124 years earlier than it's been in over a century! This phenomenon has not occurred in the U.S. since 1896. This shift in timing comes from the uneven amount of days fitting into a calendar year. Each rotation of Earth takes 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds and that doesn't fit exactly into a 24-hour day. The Gregorian calendar, created by Pope Gregory in 1583, allows for an extra 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds by including an extra day in February every four years as a leap year. But, an extra day every four years is an over-correction, and Pope Gregory accounted for this. For every century year (400 years), the calendar resets by skipping the leap year. If Pope Gregory had not replaced the calendar when he did, our calendar would be about 20 days off which would affect the timing of equinoxes and seasons. This would change all our holidays but most importantly for Christians, it would change the timing of Easter.
In ancient times, the Jewish Passover was observed on the full moon of Nisan, which is the first month of the Jewish ecclesiastical year. Months were based on a lunar cycle, with each new month beginning on the new moon. The full moon fell around the 15th of the month. On the night before, the paschal lamb was killed to signify the beginning of Passover. In the original language of the gospels, the Greek word pascha is used for the Aramaic word pesach, which means Passover. During the first three centuries of the Church, Pasch referred specifically to the celebration of Christ's passion and death. In the fourth century, the church included the Easter vigil and by the end of the fifth century, Pasch referred to Easter. Today, the summit of the liturgical year is the Easter Triduum—from the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday. Though chronologically three days, they are liturgically one day unfolding for us the unity of Christ's Paschal Mystery.
Connecting to the Moon
So, how does the equinox full moon play a role in announcing the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ? Catholics celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon which always falls between March 22nd and April 25th.The date of Easter was established by the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Typically, the Paschal full moon is the first full moon occurring on or after the spring equinox. However, the Paschal Full Moon may not be the exact same date as the actual astronomical full moon. The date can vary as much as two days from that of the actual full moon.
St. John Paul II wrote about the mysterium lunae (the mystery of the moon), whereby the Fathers of the Church "employed this image to show the Church's dependence on Christ, the Sun whose light she reflects. It was a way of expressing what Christ himself said when he called himself the 'light of the world' (John 8:12) and asked his disciples to be 'the light of the world' (Matthew 5:14)" (Novo Millennio Ineunte, "At the Beginning of the New Millennium," 54). Science has proven that the moon, as bright and beautiful as it is, depends completely on the sun for light. The moon has no brilliance on its own. Without the sun the moon is just a dark rock floating in space.
Remember that earlier passage I referred to from Genesis? God created both the sun and the moon on the same day – there is a relationship between them. St Francis calls them brother and sister. Likewise, we depend on our relationship with Christ to help us be the best person possible. We are created in the likeness and image of God and therefore, we are to reflect this likeness. We are to reflect His light in this world. "In Him was life, and that life was the light of all" (John 1:4). The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that "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" (CCC 748)
This month when you are amazed by the brilliance and beauty of the equinox full moon, take a moment to remember the moon reflects the light of the sun. Then ask yourself, during this season of Lent, how am I reflecting the light of Christ to others? Yes, the equinox signifies the beginning of spring and the end of the long winter and dark nights, but it also is a sign of something much greater to come, the resurrection into new life in Christ. Winter is over and Easter is coming!
Here are a few scripture passages about the moon to jump-start your equinox prayers.
- Genesis 1:1,14-18;
- Deuteronomy 4:19;
- Psalm 8:4-5;
- Psalm 76:14;
- Psalm 104:19,
- Psalm 143:3;
- Isaiah 66:23;
- Daniel 3:62;
- Mark 13:24;
- Acts 2:20;
- Revelation 12:1.