The Astronomical and Ecclesiastical Moons of 2019, or “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”


This blog is specifically to share about the phenomena of Spring Moons in 2019, and the dating of the Easter Festival. It will not be exhaustive, but hopefully, it will be compelling!

To begin with, in Spring 2019 we will have the rare occurrence of four Full Moons in one season (because we usually have one Full Moon each month and there are only three months per season, there are usually only three Full Moons in a season). Tradition holds that the third Full Moon in a season with four is the Blue Moon, and this type of Blue Moon (on May 19 this year) can only ever occur in February, May, August, and November, making it much more rare than the historically more recent definition of Blue Moon, which is simply the second Full Moon in one calendar month. This latter type of Blue Moon is merely a quirk of our calendar, which leads us to the larger question being stirred by the Spring Moons this year: Which Moon is the Moon that will determine the date for Easter? Is it determined by calendar rule alone, and is the rule actually rooted in the phenomena?

In describing the way to determine the right time for celebrating the Easter Festival, Rudolf Steiner emphasizes the fact that it is not simply the first Sunday after the Vernal Equinox, rather, it is the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Equinox.

But why?

To begin with, it appears to us that the Sun moves around the Earth in a circular motion, rising in the east, moving overhead, and setting in the west. This is what we perceive, though the dominant concept in our era is that the Earth is actually orbiting the Sun. This is the concept according to Copernicanism, which was introduced in the 1500s. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) published his ideas of planetary motion with these three distinctions: 1) The Earth rotates on its axis; 2) the Earth orbits the Sun; and as it orbits, 3) the Earth remains parallel to its own axis. Rudolf Steiner draws particular attention to this third distinction of Copernican planetary motion, saying it was essentially “pushed under the rug” in the sensation caused by #2, that the Earth is orbiting the Sun.

The fact that the Earth remains parallel to its own axis allows Earth to stay true to itself, as it were, but also, the axial tilt causes it to appear to us that the Sun moves north along the horizon on its way to Summer Solstice, and south along the horizon as it moves toward its Winter Solstice.

Halfway through this journey from Solstice to Solstice, the Sun will appear to arrive at its Equinox moment, when it crosses the celestial equator and day and night are of equal length. At such a moment it is as though a balance is struck. In the Spring of the Northern Hemisphere, this moment of balance is followed first and foremost by an increase in daylight hours, and in our era, this is the season when the celebrations for the renewal of life are celebrated.

But it’s not just the moment of Sun at Equinox that gives the signal for the sacred renewal of life festivals, it’s also the position of the Moon. And here is where we move from celestial phenomena to cultural phenomena in the Christian Mystery, because the event of Golgotha is a sublime demonstration of moving from the lunar- based religions and practices to the Sun-based. In an elementary way, then, we can say that the Moon must witness the return of the Sun in order for us to arrive at the proper dating of a festival that celebrates this cultural shift.

It goes a step further: Once the Sun has achieved its moment of Equinox heading north, the first stage in the unfolding mystery has been met; then we wait on the Moon (second stage); then we await the dawning of the Sun on the first Sunday following (third stage). The Sun holds what appears to be an immutable rhythm, arriving at the same degree of the zodiac on the same day from one year to the next. The Moon, on the other hand, does not exhibit the same rhythm, and only repeats the same phase on the same date every 19 years. Since the observance of Easter is rooted in the relationship between Sun, Moon, and Earth, and Moon is changeable from one year to the next, we must wait on the Moon to witness the return of the Sun, thus resulting in a moveable date for Easter from one year to the next.

There is another motion that needs to be considered here as well, and that is the wobble of the Earth on its axis; while Earth is rotating and orbiting, remaining primarily parallel to its own axis, the pull of the Moon causes it to slightly wobble. Over the course of 72 years, the Earth wobbles one full degree away from where it was 72 years earlier. This causes a slow precession of the Equinox, since the Equinox moment is aligned to the Sun’s crossing the celestial equator, and the celestial equator is simply an imagination of Earth’s equator projected into space. Because Earth is wobbling, this imaginary line also wobbles, which means the Sun crosses it at a slightly different moment each year, though this is generally imperceptible in the course of one human life.

This year, the moment of Equinox, when Sun appears to cross the celestial equator, will occur on Wednesday, March 20, at 5:58 pm edt. This is an astronomical moment and in the 21st century it is measured by machine technology used by the US Naval Observatory and the International Astronomer’s Union, among others. Centuries ago, human beings lived into the environment and read the moment of Equinox by relationship to that environment, and observed their festivals accordingly.

In addition, the first Full Moon of the Spring, according to the astronomical calculation, will occur later that same evening, at 9:44 pm on Wednesday, March 20. Technically, this should be the Moon that signals the onset of the Eastertide, because this first Moon is regarded as the witness to the return of the Sun. This Moon satisfies the requirement astronomically, but what about culturally?

The March 20, 2019 Full Moon will come to Full Phase in the region just below the star Denebola, the star that marks the tail-end of the constellation Leo, the Lion. I reached out to Fred Espanak (NASA’s Moon expert), John French (publisher of Michigan State University’s Sky Calendar)and Guy Ottewell (Universal Workshop), and each of them affirm that the March 20, 2019 Full Moon, while it is technically the first of the Spring, it is not the first Full Moon of the season that will occur below the celestial equator. The March 20 Full Moon is about 3.8 to 4 degrees above the celestial equator.

This leads me to wonder whether the March 20 Full Moon is the right witness to the Sun’s return, or whether it is the rival of that return, still holding its ground in the northern celestial hemisphere. Typically, the first Full Moon of the Spring moves across the celestial equator before it achieves Full Phase, and there, from below the celestial equator, it reflects the return, and ascendency, of the Sun, which would be the celestial picture that stands behind the Christian Mystery that was wrought on behalf of humanity at Golgotha.

In describing the moveable feasts that are rooted in this Mystery, Rudolf Steiner explains that the Mystery of Golgotha (inclusive of the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension) are deeds undertaken on behalf of humanity, whether humanity recognizes this or not, whether it is observed or not. It is given. With the Pentecost, however, it is not the same. The Pentecost Mystery requires our active and conscious engagement, in community.

In other words, it is not Easter we will miss this year if we choose to celebrate according to the “wrong” Moon, as though there were such a thing, it is, rather, the Whitsun Mystery. We must realize this Mystery within ourselves, and find it not in Sun and Moon and nature, but in relation to one another. So how will we, as individuals and members of a spiritually striving community, reconcile the astronomical phenomena with the calendar organism, and arrive at a sense of having truly experienced the mystery with one another?

The Sun and Moon in the Spring open a portal of opportunity into this greater experience, which could be described as an invitation for all of us to enter the castle that is East of the Sun and West of the Moon. If we scratch the surface of this Rosicrucian tale for the mystery that lies hidden in its title, we find that it refers to a unique and singular moment that happens in the course of every year, and that moment is this: when the Sun has moved above the celestial equator (in the macrocosm) but has set below the horizon (in the microcosm) and the Full Moon has risen above the earth horizon (microcosm), but is below the celestial equator (macrocosm). At such a moment, when the Risen Sun has set in the west, and Moon comes Full below the celestial equator while yet rising in the East, then the Earth becomes the castle that lies East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Then, we who would know we are invited, enter, guided by the knowing that “the seeker of the spirit will now be tested to see whether he will attain the faculties for true spiritual perception or whether his soul will be surrounded by a world of spiritual error. For his capacity of perception these experiences are clothed in the imagination of ‘entering a castle’ where the world of spiritual experience is administered.” 

That said, I would like to suggest that we take up this season as an opportunity for spiritual scientific research, to live into and through the moments of Equinox and Full Moon, and even of next month’s Full Moon and Easter observance, and ask ourselves if and how we found an answer. It is an opportunity that allows us to move beyond machine technology and the seeming incongruities of our calendar to an active re- engagement with nature: with birdsong, and wind, rising sap and melting ice and snow. Perhaps an answer will then present itself, not only about the “right” date for Easter, but for whether or not the foundation that was laid for such a community to arise has actually been realized.

Let me end by saying that this is on-going research, not only because I am an anthroposophist and I study the stars, but because I was born at the Vernal Full Moon, and have spent a considerable amount of time in my life pondering how one gets from Vernal Full Moon to Easter Sun-day,

~Mary Stewart Adams

15 March, 2019

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going.  No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousnes.

Give me your hand.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~

You can hear my podcast about the Spring Moon anomaly here!