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Lunar Learning

The moon still holds mysteries and points to more

This last Friday was Friday the 13th and a Full Moon. This got a lot of people excited and making jokes. Some superstitious people even were scared. For me, it just gave me a reason to look at the beautiful moon and how much it lit up everything around me. I was having a very relaxing weekend, so I had time to sit and stare at the moon and ponder.

I thought about how somewhere on the earth, every night, someone is looking up at the night sky and admiring the moon. We can see it so clearly. We don’t even need a telescope to see it, yet there is still so much that we don’t know about it. We’ve even walked on it, multiple times.

How have people’s ideas changed throughout the years when it comes to the moon?

Art from thousands of years ago show that earliest man had a fascination with this glowing thing in the sky.

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Then as cultures grew and spread, so did early mythology. Many cultures thought the moon corresponded with a specific deity. In Egypt they had Ibis, Khonsu, and Thoth. In Greek mythology, the goddess Selene was regarded as the personification of the moon itself. The Hindus explained eclipses with Rahu and Ketu who would swallow the sun and the moon respectively, causing darkness on the Earth.

Then mankind started tracking the moon’s movements and realized the 28 day cycle, leading to early calendars and methods of tracking the passing of time. Galileo was one of the first people to truly take note of the shape and patterns of the moon’s surface. He pointed his telescope that direction and was the first to show that the moon wasn’t a perfectly smooth sphere.

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Well into the 19th century, it was not outlandish to think that there was vegetation on the surface of the moon or that alien life lived there. During the 20th century we were finally able to understand that the many craters of the moon were due to impacts with other space rocks.

Then came the age of rockets! It was finally feasible to travel to the moon ourselves. We were no longer bound with simply looking at it from the fixed perspective of the Earth’s surface. In 1959 the Soviets were able to view the “dark side of the moon.” Then in 1969, the Apollo mission sent American astronauts to land on and finally interact with this moon that had always been just out of our grasp.

Thanks to these brave explorers we have learned so much. They learned that the lighter/darker areas of the moon that we see were not land/sea. They were, instead, different types of rocks. The darker areas were a type of volcanic rock called basalts, and the lighter areas were composed of plagioclase, a common component of the Earth’s crust.

The discoveries from the Apollo program gave us a new perspective on the moon that made it seem like a dead wasteland. Its weather was extreme and it was a vacuum greater than anything we could create in a lab. Many thought there was nothing new to learn from this rock in the sky. But the moon keeps surprising us. In the 2000s new observations from the NASA-built Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) on India's Chandrayaan-1 satellite detected the spectral signature of water (the wavelengths of light that it reflects) across the moon’s surface. The strongest of these signals were at the north and south poles, but the entire surface of the moon showed signals of water during at least some part of the day.

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It is amazing that man has been looking to the moon for thousands of years, trying to better understand this beautiful part of nature, but we still continue to learn more about it.

In the Bible there are multiple mentions of the moon. Many of those times, especially in the Psalms, the moon is referenced when speaking of the beauty and majesty of all celestial entities (sun, moon, stars). Other verses reference the passage of time and seasons based on the phases of the moon.

To many Catholics, though, one verse about the moon stands out from the others, “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars;” (Revelation 12:1)

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Catholics believe this verse to be a beautiful and lyrical description of Mary, mother of Jesus. We do not believe like the people of old that she was a goddess, that she somehow controls the moon. She was an ordinary human like you and me. The difference was that she was born without sin and was assumed into heaven while still in that perfect state of grace.

One of the main reasons we associate Mary with the moon is purely as an analogy. It is known by science that the moon does not produce any light of its own. The reason it looks so bright and shining to us is because it reflects the light of the sun, the true source of light for the entire Earth. In a similar way, Mary was human. She was not divine, but she perfectly reflected the light of Christ that her son was sharing with the world. Every action of hers pointed us towards her son. As Christians we look to Mary as a perfect example of giving ourselves completely to God. As she said in the gospels, “may it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) This statement of humility is what all Christians are called to live by.

All of us are called to share the light of Christ with the world. We must spend every day trying to be like our mother Mary. I pray that each of us may become as bright as the moon, that none can deny the light within us, that all may see the beauty of our God through the reflection that we show.