Have you ever looked at the consecrated host as the priest elevates it at Mass and thought, “That looks just like a big, full moon”?
If so, you’re not alone.
This weekend, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, also known by the Latin term, Corpus Christi. It is a feast that traces back to devotion to the Eucharist by one of the Norbertine communities’ patrons: St. Juliana of Liège, a Premonstratensian religious of the 13th century who lived in Belgium.
St. Juliana had visions of the Lord and, in one of those visions, she said he revealed to her a full moon with a dark stripe across it.
In a 2010 homily, Pope Benedict XVI explained the vision: “The moon symbolized the life of the church on earth, the opaque line, on the other hand, represented the absence of a liturgical feast for whose institution Juliana was asked to plead effectively: namely, a feast in which believers would be able to adore the Eucharist …”
Because of St. Juliana’s efforts, the feast of Corpus Christi was established by Pope Urban IV in 1264. (Juliana had died in 1258.)
Today, the use of the symbol of the moon in church most often represents the Virgin Mary, who is shown in art as standing on a waning moon. This waning moon symbolizes the Old Testament and Mary depicts the New Testament. However, moon artwork associated with Mary dates only to about the 13th or 14th centuries. Earlier church images of the moon often represent the church itself, as it reflected the glory of Christ the sun. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: “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 (is) reflected from the sun” (n. 748).
So if you look around the church today, do you see any moon symbols? They can appear in statues of Mary (and sometimes of John the Baptist, as the last prophet of the Old Testament), in stained glass, or even in mosaics.
The monstrance used for eucharistic adoration and for eucharistic processions that have traditionally taken place on this feast, also has a moon. With most monstrances, there is a piece called a lunette — that looks like a crescent moon — to hold the sacred host. Around the monstrance, there is often an image of a sunburst, symbolizing the light of Christ.
So when the host is raised at Mass or at adoration, remember how the light of Christ dispels the darkness, like the sun’s bright light reflected off the face of the moon.
Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of multiple books.