As I was preparing my Easter homilies (yes, that’s right, homilies plural – one for the Easter Vigil and one for Easter Sunday), I came across a video of Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s Chrism Mass homily. In it, he made reference to a recently released text of the brief speech then-Cardinal Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) made to the College of Cardinals during the General Congregations. Specifically, he made reference to an oft-used image of the Church from the Church fathers – the mysterium lunae. I ended up using the image in my own Easter Vigil homily. In essence, the image refers to the fact that the moon shines, not with its own light, but only in reflecting the light of the sun – this is the “mystery of the moon” or mysterium lunae. Many Church Fathers used this image as a way to talk about the Church – in the words of St. Ambrose, 4th century bishop of Milan, “The Church shines not with its own light, but with the light of Christ.” In the context of the Easter Vigil, we might think of the light of the Paschal Candle – representing Christ – which shines into a darkened church building and is spread to the candles of all people present – but each person’s individual light began as part of the one Light of Christ and is only a reflection of that greatest of all lights, the “Morning Star that never sets,” as is sung in the Exultet. Cardinal Bergoglio suggested that when the Church ceases to reflect the light of Christ, but thinks that it shines with its own light, it falls into the greatest of evils – spiritual worldliness.
As it turns out, Pope Francis isn’t the first modern Pope to use this image in reference to the Church. From Blessed Pope John Paul II’s letter on the arrival of the Third Christian Millenium: “A new century, a new millennium are opening in the light of Christ. But not everyone can see this light. Ours is the wonderful and demanding task of becoming its ‘reflection’. This is the mysterium lunae, which was so much a part of the contemplation of the Fathers of the Church, who employed this image to show the Church’s dependence on Christ, the Sun whose light she reflects.” (Novo Millenio Ineunte 54) Before his papal election, Pope Benedict XVI also frequently made reference to this same image. Here is one example from an essay he wrote in 1973: “The essence of the Church is that it counts for nothing in itself, in that the thing about it that counts is what it is not, in that it exists only to be dispossessed, in that it possesses a light that it is not and because of which alone it nonetheless is. The Church is the moon – the mysterium lunae – and thus exists for the faithful, for thus it is the place of an enduring spiritual decision. (Joseph Ratzinger, “Why I am still in the Church”)
Talk about continuity! From Blessed Pope John Paul II to Pope Benedict XVI to Pope Francis – the image of the mysterium lunae is central to their understanding of the Church. And it is an image that comes from the Church Fathers, like St. Ambrose, and is also fundamental to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, such as in the opening sentence of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church.” (Lumen Gentium 1)
So what does all this have to do with Cesar Chavez? Easter Sunday this year coincided with the anniversary of the birth of Chavez, a 20th Century Catholic labor leader and advocate for farm workers in the southwestern United States. Google decided to use an image of Chavez as their doodle of the day on the main page of the search engine. A number of Christians were angered and offended by this decision – while Google typically does not have a special doodle for Easter, to choose to honor a person rather than the greatest of all Christian festivals seemed to many to be blatantly anti-Christian. I disagree with these assessments. While it would have been great to have an Easter symbol as the Google doodle on Sunday, recognizing someone like Chavez gives us an opportunity to reflect on what Easter is all about – what the Church is all about – and what a concrete application of the mysterium lunae looks like. Chavez was a devout Catholic who based his actions and leadership on Catholic Social Teaching, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical Rerum Novarum that advocated for the rights of workers as basic human rights. His marches and rallies were unapologetically Christian – with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe leading the marches that demanded recognition of rights for farm workers. One such march ended with a rally on Easter Sunday – because, on Easter, we celebrate Christ’s conquering of sin and evil and bringing all of us into the freedom of new life with God. Like so many others, Cesar Chavez did what he did because he was a disciple, and he recognized that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. He did not try to draw attention to himself, but rather – as part of the Church – reflected the light of Christ to the people around him. He tried to live Easter – to bring about on earth the new life promised by Jesus Christ.
If we stop and think about it, honoring someone like Cesar Chavez on Easter can help deepen our understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and what it means for us – here, today. It can also help us reflect on the great image of the mysterium lunae, by which we recognize that our lives and decisions as Christians must be done not for ourselves or by ourselves but as a reflection of the light of Christ. These can be great conversations and reflections. And they might even spur us to a greater discipleship.