John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
The first full moon that occurs in autumn is called the “Harvest Moon.” The second full moon of fall is called “Hunter’s Moon.” This year, Harvest Moon rises Sept. 24, and Hunter’s Moon on Oct. 24.
Nature has sometimes been the channel by which people come to know God: by reading the book of nature, men have come to know “nature’s God,” to realize that such order as is found in the universe is as likely to rise by chance as a monkey will succeed in pounding out the Complete Works of Shakespeare on a typewriter. The late Avery Cardinal Dulles, for example, admits his awareness of God’s existence from his encounter with a tree beginning to flower along the Charles River at Harvard. St. Faustyna Kowalska reflects in her diary about God’s care for every little detail of his world when she saw a living bug on the cold winter floor of her convent in Poland.
The Harvest and Hunter Moons have always spoken to me about God.
These two full moons get their names and significance from the fact that they rise almost immediately after sunset. Because they are already shining early in the evening, they automatically extended the day. Farmers thus gained extra time to gather the harvest home ahead of coming frosts. A month later, hunters gained extra time in the forest to bring in meat and fur for the barren and cold winter months ahead.
The moon rises about 50 minutes later each night as it travels through its phases, which means that sometimes the moon sets quickly in the evening or can even be seen shining in the daytime. The fall Harvest Moon, however, rises dependably near sunset, enabling farmers to continue working in the fields in the critical days of harvest time.
Our world probably does not appreciate that very much. As evening comes, we switch on a light. We think of our food supply today as depending more on trucks than the gleaners of the field. Strawberries in January are not exotic. Our meat is more likely the result of a “factory farm” than the fowler prowling the woodlands.
That’s why I think there’s value in the occasional blackout. We had one for one night last year here in Virginia. The house depended on four or five well-placed candles. My sons found their computers and iPads useless without Wi-Fi: in Taiwan, the current generation of young people are called the 下頭祖 (xìatóu zǔ), the “bent over heads generation.” They actually had to lift up their heads to spend an enjoyable evening reading poetry before going to bed under covers one did not want to emerge from, because there was no light in the house. We could have used a full moon that night.
And, after that night, we understood better why the Harvest and Hunter Moons were important. We also understood why, in Genesis 1, the first thing God makes is “light.” Attacking biblical fundamentalism as represented by the Scopes Trial, Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind has Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) ridicule Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) for the “unscientific” idea that light existed before the sun and moon were created. But, for ancient Israel, whose analysis of the world was “what you see is what you’ve got,” light, sun and moon were separate things. Sun and moon might be particularly bright lights, but there was still a difference between day and night on a cloudy day or in a sandstorm, even if you didn’t see the sun. And in a world when you went to bed when the sun went down, when night afforded but limp candles or oil lamps in pitch darkness (which is why you might not want to open that door where the importunate neighbor was knocking for bread) light was pretty important. It’s no wonder why lots of ancients, like the Egyptians, worshipped the sun, or why some, like the Babylonians, worshipped the moon. (Hey, the moon had to be more important—you needed a light more at night than in the daytime!)
The fact that God’s Providence provides that, in the rhythm of the seasons, the setting or the sun and the rising of the full moon in autumn coincided was neither just happenstance nor simply nice. It suggested that, just as He who ensures the sparrows do not go hungry, man’s needs are cared for. And, even though a geocentric world is not necessary to affirm the importance of man, the fact that even the lunar cycle works, like “all things for those who love God, unto good” (Romans 8: 28). And just as the light of the sun gives life by making things grow, and the light of the reflected moon extends human possibilities, so the Light of the Son still gives Life, while She who is the reflective moon extends human possibilities beyond what the heart of man could imagine.
So, go take a look at the Harvest Moon. See its beauty. Enjoy the beauty of light. And understand how He who knows “where is the way that light dwelleth, and as for darkness, the place thereof?” (Job 38:19), who guides the course of the stars to give you this bright evening? And realize that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).