First Sunday of Advent: ‘There Will Be Signs in the Sun, Moon and Stars’

He who made the heavens rules them — so should we be surprised there will be signs in them?

Mosaic from the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Italy
Mosaic from the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Italy (photo: Public Domain)

The readings for the beginning and end of the Church year refer to the one article in the Creed still in the future tense: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

Today’s artwork illustrating the Gospel comes from Sicily. It alludes to the verses (25-26) speaking about “signs in the sun, moon and stars” and saying “the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

That the cosmos itself should be changed by the coming of Christ should not surprise us. “The heavens proclaim the glory of God,” declares the Psalmist (Psalm 19:1). Catholic teaching affirms that all people can come to knowledge of God from the natural world (Denzinger 3004).

That people “can” does not mean they “will.” People can pull their ideological blinders tight, demanding a “strict wall of separation” between science and theology, refusing to consider anything learned from the physical world that cannot be quantified or experimented on. We live in a strange world where many people believe what is “real” and what we can commonly discuss is limited to what can be put in a test tube or weighed on a scale. “Science” is real — philosophy and, even more so, theology, are dismissed as mental fantasies.

But can you measure love? “There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5) — especially if your philosophy insists on a cramped vision that won’t see what you can’t measure.

Under those conditions, the idea that our extremely complex universe, which required an almost infinite number of things going right for it to be the place it is, to exhibit the order it has, and to support life at least on this planet, could suggest something beyond itself is dismissed.

For those not afraid to look beyond their ideological blinders, the idea that our very orderly universe is more likely the result of design that the fortuitous chance of a monkey at a typewriter banging out The Complete Works of Shakespeare suggests that, yes, there are already “signs in the sun, moon and stars.”

Consider our planet. For a long time, scoffers maintained that the Copernican revolution, replacing a geocentric with a heliocentric solar system, demoted humanity. How could we, on a little planet orbiting a medium-sized star on the edges of a galaxy that is one of many, many others, think ourselves special?

But I remember reading an article in First Things — by Stephen Barr, I think — who pointed out that, in astronomy as in real estate, it’s all about “location, location, location.” If we lived on a star closer to the center of the galaxy with much greater stellar density, the background radiation would probably make life as we know it impossible. If we lived further out, say around a giant star, its gravitational pull would probably be inimical to the formation of metals as elements and — well, human life isn’t going to exist without iron or copper and a shot of magnesium. So, while we might not be at the center of things we’re in, as one writer put it, a “Goldilocks Spot” — “just right.”

Just a good shot of luck?

As the Psalmist reminds us, while the universe may have no voice, “their words to out to the end of the world” (Psalm 19:3-4). Of course, the Gospel also tells us that how people react to God’s Word, spoken naturally or supernaturally, varies (Matthew 13:18-23).

In Genesis 1, God creates “the heavens and the earth.” When we examine the specific things mentioned that he makes — the sun and moon, the birds of the air, the fishes of the sea, the cattle — we find that the inspired writer is engaging in a polemic with Israel’s neighbors, who worshipped one of more of those things as gods. Egypt worshipped the sun, Babylon the moon. 

Genesis (1:14-19) assigns them utilitarian purposes: to provide light, to mark the seasons and the “appointed times,” (i.e., times that depend on how God set up the universe, such as the rotation and revolution of the earth, corresponding to days and years). And since animals don’t need, or at least are not consciously aware of the passage of time, that utilitarian purpose serves one creature: man, the summit of God’s creation, his viceroy (1:28).

Man is given creation to use, not abuse. This is fundamentally different from our contemporary eco-idolatry that reduces the human person to just another species in the world, and an allegedly environmentally bad one at that. This is part of the Judaeo-Christian Genesis heritage a Gaia-infatuated modernity is in danger of losing, with its concomitant threat to the human person and his dignity.

God met men where he’s at. Genesis already cut down the sun, moon and stars to tools for man, not lords over him that determine his destiny. So, from the get go, astrology was out.

But, in meeting man where he’s at, God allows the “signs in the heavens” to speak to him. They don’t speak for themselves, much less control things, but they can be signs of God’s. We already see that at a natural level, where those disinclined to persist in epistemological blinders can recognize cosmic order and an Orderer. At the supernatural level, we see this in the account of Jesus’ Nativity, for which we are preparing during Advent. While the Jerusalem establishment had the even more reliable revealed Word of God to tell them “where the Messiah is to be born” (Matthew 2:4-6) it was the Magi who, relying on their assumptions about celestial signs, followed the “star” (Matthew 2:2) to Bethlehem.

Different people don different intellectual blinders.

Should we be surprised, then, when Jesus speaks about “signs in the sun and the moon and the stars” as heralds of the end? History has a purpose. It’s not some impersonal Geist, communism, human-driven “progress,” or anything else. It is the Kingdom of God, inexorably inaugurated on the Cross and reaching its absolute, indisputable triumph on the Last Day. That is where Good Friday leads to.

And just as, on Good Friday, the Evangelists speak of cosmic signs (Matthew 27:45), earthly disturbances (27:51) and even a mini-resurrection (27:52-53) that even elicited a pagan’s profession of faith (27:54), “there will be signs in the sun and the moon and the stars.”

Because, as Scripture reminds us, we await a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1; 2 Peter 3:13). Scripture speaks of the destruction of the old — of sin and evil — by fire (Malachi 4:1; 2 Peter 3:7, 10). Sin and evil are the “futility” to which creation has been subjected by man’s unfaithful stewardship, and St. Paul reminds us that all of creation is waiting, as in childbirth (Romans 8:19-24). Creation is awaiting childbirth — the revelation of “the children of God” (v. 21), those who were “wise” in the biblical sense of knowing the priority of God in their lives, to “shine like the brightness of the heavens … and like the brightness of the stars for all eternity” (Daniel 12:3).

Because the true glory of God — and his creation — is “man fully alive” (St. Irenaeus).

Is it a surprise that our model, Mary, the first and truest disciple, is also frequently depicted as crowned with stars, standing on the moon, an image of Biblical warrant? (See Revelation 12:1-2.)

Today’s mosaic comes from the Cappella Palatina in Palermo. Some readers might be surprised to see artwork that looks very much like of Eastern Christian origin, from 12th-century Sicily.

But Sicily lay at the crossroads between East and West, and Byzantine and Roman influences are both found in that church, dating from around 1140. The illustration above comes from a cycle of creation appearing on the sanctuary wall.

The sun, moon, and stars are enclosed in an orb, outside of which Jesus stands. God enters our history, but he also remains above it: It is through the Word that the Father created and, as the blessing of the Paschal candle at Easter reminds us:

Christ yesterday and today
the beginning and the end
the Alpha and the Omega
all time belongs to him
and all the ages.

The heavens themselves are like a scroll in his hand (Revelation 6:14). 

The mosaic is very biblical. Notice that our cosmos — the sun, moon and stars — is enclosed in only a part of “the bigger picture.” Jesus stands outside it, the gold background symbolic of the eternal, heavenly realm. There are more things beyond heaven and earth, too. 

He who made those heavens rules them and will redeem them. So should we be surprised there will be signs in them?