As months wear their way across the years, our faithful ethereal friend keeps time. The shroud of night which lays heavily on us all is pierced through by its borrowed rays, a lunar helpmeet to its brighter cousin.
The moon has always been a fascinating yet enigmatic feature of the cosmos, holding humanity in rapt attention. The cycles of day and night fall in step with its dance and we in turn are caught up in the movement.
Within the creation account in Genesis the moon makes a dramatic appearance in the beginning, as the fourth day- already bathed in the creative light spoken in the beginning- is filled with more light. Within the poetic framework the sun and moon are the not merely the mechanistic cause of day and night, but rather are placed into each realm as if a fitting inhabitant. Perhaps they are where they belong.
Going further, these great lights are not to be the heralds of day and night but are set over them, to rule and to govern. Within God’s creative act they are not simply an example of cause and effect but have a deeper purpose: to give light to the earth, to govern the night and the day, to separate light from darkness. Curiously, the day is not complete without the sun; unspoken is the idea that without its warmth and light the day would be as night.
But neither is the night to be barren. The moon is set over its own time and is created to provide light all the same. The implication is that the darkness is marked off from the light but is not left to be chaotic nothingness. Even within the reaches of blackness God is still in control, his surrogate the moon a reminder of that primordial light spoke into existence.
The creation account proved fertile field for many of the early church fathers, and St. Basil– a remarkable theologian and indefatigable writer- was no exception. In his Hexaemeron St. Basil takes pen in hand to describe the wonders of creation and the greatness of the author behind it all.
The account of the moon is an intriguing glance into St. Basil’s interpretive style, for he sees the lesser light which rules the night to be interesting not just as a cosmological phenomenon, but as a spiritual allegory for the human condition.
We begin with the greatness of the moon itself. From the text “God made two great lights” St. Basil rhetorically wonders if the greatness is only a relative measure or intrinsic to the moon by virtue of what it is. He first of all considers relative greatness:
What idea shall we ourselves form here of greatness? Shall it be the idea that we have of it in the ant and in all the little creatures of nature, which we call great in comparison with those like themselves, and to show their superiority over them?[1. St. Basil, Hexaemeron, Homily VI.]
In other words, if we see two animals and notice one is bigger than the other, by relative measure we might consider the larger to be ‘great.’ However, there is another form of greatness- that which is inherent to its object:
Or shall we predicate greatness of the luminaries, as of the natural greatness inherent in them? As for me, I think so. If the sun and moon are great, it is not in comparison with the smaller stars, but because they have such a circumference that the splendour which they diffuse lights up the heavens and the air, embracing at the same time earth and sea.[2. ibid.]
Although St. Basil did not know that stars are like the sun and therefore larger than the moon, he nevertheless understands that the greatness of the moon is not due merely to its size but rather to its nature. Going off of the scriptural passage he is commenting on, the greatness is wholly wrapped up in its attachment to and influence on earth.
St. Basil will spend the next paragraph relating how the moon generally appears to be about the same size to the eye from any location on earth (even though his geographical range was more limited). This is proof of its greatness since our experience of seeing other objects is that they diminish in size the farther we get away from them:
At a very great distance objects always lose size in our eyes; sight, not being able to clear the intermediary space, is as it were exhausted in the middle of its course, and only a small part of it reaches the visible object. Our power of sight is small and makes all we see seem small, affecting what it sees by its own condition.[3. St. Basil, Hexaemeron, Homily VI.]
For people from Britain to India to see the same moon is for St. Basil enough reason to suppose it is huge. He scoffs at those who think the object our eyes can see is small:
Do not be deceived by mere appearance, and because it looks a cubit’s breadth, imagine it to be no bigger.[4. ibid.]
In all actuality, St. Basil probably imagined the moon to be bigger than the earth like many ancient writers. Most were aware that eclipses occurred because of one heavenly body passing in front of another- Pliny the Elder describes an eclipse this way:
It is in fact obvious that the sun is hidden by the passage across it of the moon, and the moon by the interposition of the earth, and that they retaliate on one another, the same rays of the sun being taken away from the earth by the moon intervening and from the moon by the earth: at the transit of the former a sudden shadow passes over the earth, and in return the shadow of the latter dims the heavenly body (the moon), and the darkness is merely the earth’s shadow… clearly it would not be possible for the whole of the sun to be eclipsed from the earth by the passage of the moon between them if the earth were larger than the moon.[5. Pliny the Elder, natural History, Book II, Chapter 7 and 8.]
It is unknown if St. Basil shares this understanding (he may have since he perceives the moon to be second in splendor only to the sun), but given his insistence that the moon’s greatness is not in relation to other heavenly bodies but because of its inherent nature to govern the night, the question would probably be immaterial to him.
Rather, the moon provides a fitting illustration of how the greatness of the saints and of those who shine brightly in their faith can be looked to for encouragement and help without taking away from God who alone should be praised. Returning to the creation of the sun and the moon, he notices that the light of creation and even the day are said to exist prior to the creation of the sun and moon.
The motive follows which caused the lights to be created. It was to illuminate the earth. Already light was created; why therefore say that the sun was created to give light?
Then the actual nature of light was produced: now the sun’s body is constructed to be a vehicle for that original light. A lamp is not fire. Fire has the property of illuminating, and we have invented the lamp to light us in darkness. In the same way, the luminous bodies have been fashioned as a vehicle for that pure, clear, and immaterial light. The Apostle speaks to us of certain lights which shine in the world without being confounded with the true light of the world, the possession of which made the saints luminaries of the souls which they instructed and drew from the darkness of ignorance. This is why the Creator of all things, made the sun in addition to that glorious light, and placed it shining in the heavens.[6. St. Basil, Hexaemeron, Homily VI.]
St. Basil understands the greater lights to be expressions and vehicles of all light, conduits in which it is focused and seen clearly. The sun and moon they are not actually the light themselves but are given so that the earth may receive light, both in the day and in the night. The creation of light and the day and the night are not, in his view, dependent on the existence of the sun and moon. Instead, the sun and moon essentially ‘fill out’ the day and the night and are the means by which light is given to the earth, like a lamp is a way the light of a flame is given to a room.
Within the spiritual life he sees this as applying to the saints and apostles- they themselves are not the light but are vehicles of it. Surely St. Basil has St. John’s words in mind regarding John the Baptist: “He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.” As we see the sun and moon by means of the light they give our sight is illumined; as we look at the examples of the apostles and saints our minds and hearts receive the light of truth and are raised to the one who is the true Light.
The important thing to gain from this reading, according to St. Basil, is that we realize that the great lights are themselves distinct from the Light– there is no room for idolizing the heavenly bodies as was done of old. (Similarly, neither should we give what is due to human luminaries what is reserved for God alone.) Rather, we must recognize the distinction that exists:
And let no one suppose it to be a thing incredible that the brightness of the light is one thing, and the body which is its material vehicle is another.
In the revolutions of the moon we find a new proof of what we have advanced… If you look at it in a cloudless and clear sky, you observe, when it has taken the complete form of a crescent, that the part, which is dark and not lighted up, describes a circle equal to that which the full moon forms. Thus the eye can take in the whole circle, if it adds to the illuminated part this obscure and dark curve.[7. ibid.]
His point, of course, is that even though we witness the regularity of the phases of the moon, when it is a crescent it doesn’t have less light because of it being ‘less’ of a light than when it is a full moon. St. Basil rather understands it as not being the same as the light which shines from it, so the phases of the moon do not affect the light which is distinct from it at any rate. He brushes off the objection that the light is borrowed from the sun (and therefore this illustration is meaningless), not because he necessarily disagrees, but because it is immaterial to his argument:
And do not tell me that the light of the moon is borrowed, diminishing or increasing in proportion as it approaches or recedes from the sun. That is not now the object of our research; we only wish to prove that its body differs from the light which makes it shine.[8. ibid.]
Within the argument he has been developing, even the reflected light of the moon would serve his purpose; actually, it would more strongly reinforce it since it would more directly cement the distinction between the moon’s ‘body’ and the “light which makes it shine.” He seems to understand the moon reflecting the light of the sun since he speaks of the moon as clothing itself with light and laying it down again, while the sun he imagines to have somehow ‘mixed’ itself with light so as to always have it.
The moon’s clothing of itself with light and monthly disrobing furnishes for St. Basil a most sticking figure:
To all this [the properties of the sun] the properties of the moon are near akin; she, too, has an immense body, whose splendour only yields to that of the sun. Our eyes, however, do not always see her in her full size. Now she presents a perfectly rounded disc, now when diminished and lessened she shows a deficiency on one side. When waxing she is shadowed on one side, and when she is waning another side is hidden.[9. ibid.]
In the height of her beauty the moon rises adorned in splendor, robed like a queen in the vaults of the heavens. But as the month wears on he garments slowly fray and wear out, until tattered rags are all that remain. For St. Basil,
It presents a striking example of our nature. Nothing is stable in man; here from nothingness he raises himself to perfection; there after having hasted to put forth his strength to attain his full greatness he suddenly is subject to gradual deterioration, and is destroyed by diminution.[10. ibid.]
Whereas the sun appears to be stable and firm, a constant fire whose rays never fail, the moon and its light stretch out in imitation and achieve a level of greatness, only to fall short and end in nothingness. St. basil finds this a fitting description for the human experience, as our lives ebb and flow like the tides which are subject to her dominance. All of our effort to attain greatness is doomed to end in failure and brokenness.
Thus, the sight of the moon, making us think of the rapid vicissitudes of human things, ought to teach us not to pride ourselves on the good things of this life, and not to glory in our power, not to be carried away by uncertain riches, to despise our flesh which is subject to change, and to take care of the soul, for its good is unmoved.[11. ibid.]
St. Basil subtly ties in his previous thoughts on the luminaries here, for the saints are, by definition, those who have completely trusted in God for their salvation and have given themselves in his service. They shine in splendor and give witness to the light of God, not because of their own doing or worthiness but because they gloried in the one who is the Light of all Light and from whom they received light. These lunar saints shine with a borrowed light, but unlike their cosmic archetype will never wane.
If you cannot behold without sadness the moon losing its splendour by gradual and imperceptible decrease, how much more distressed should you be at the sight of a soul, who, after having possessed virtue, loses its beauty by neglect, and does not remain constant to its affections, but is agitated and constantly changes because its purposes are unstable. What Scripture says is very true, “As for a fool he changes as the moon.”[12. ibid.]
The struggle in the spiritual life is to always be vigilant, to always be on guard, never to presume that one’s own efforts or goodness is the source of one’s light. This kind of pride is a lunar pride, and those who share in this hubris St. Basil feels could rightly be termed lunatics. They shine for a time but fade in a pathetic and inevitable demise.
Wisdom is the path that is paved with humility, and the saints are those who trade a lunar glory for that of lesser lights. It is in this humility that the greatness of God is finally seen:
May He Who has given us intelligence to recognise in the smallest objects of creation the great wisdom of the Contriver make us find in great bodies a still higher idea of their Creator. However, compared with their Author, the sun and moon are but a fly and an ant. The whole universe cannot give us a right idea of the greatness of God; and it is only by signs, weak and slight in themselves, often by the help of the smallest insects and of the least plants, that we raise ourselves to Him.[13. ibid.]