Why the stars and the moon for Mary?

The statue of Mary here at St Peter’s is a classic example of the kind you can see in many Catholic Churches. First of all, notice that this is a young woman but perhaps the statue makes her look older than she was, for she was after all a teenage mother. But, of course, the statue is not meant to depict what Mary was actually like, but is making a number of much deeper statements about her. Have you noticed that her long hair flows freely down her back? A devout Jewish young woman in those days would never have worn her hair uncovered like that in public. But we are not seeing her as she would have appeared in public; we are being shown how God saw her when the angel visited her to tell her she was to have the baby that would save the world. It was a very private moment as holding out her hands she said “Yes” to God.

Statues like this one always show Mary wearing blue – the sign of her virginity, or white the sign of her purity and faithfulness, but this statue also shows us a number of other things. Above her head is a halo yes. But not just an ordinary halo that you might see round the head of any saint. No, this halo has twelve stars, and then if you look down at her feet you will see that she is standing on the moon.

There is also a snake at her feet, but let’s concentrate on the moon and the stars first. Why are they there?

The simple answer is found in our 1st Reading today (Rev 11:19.12:1-10) The whole book of Revelation (or Apocalypse) is, of course, not meant to be taken literally. Like this statue, like any work of art, it’s sharing of all sorts of images with us that have a deeper meaning. The writer was trying to get over to little groups of persecuted Christians the need to keep faithful even though things were tough. He wanted them to know that although the Roman Empire  they lived in appeared enormous and strong, like a great dragon killing everything in its path; God’s  power through Jesus was much greater, even though unseen. In this great work of defeating evil, the writer now shows us “a woman… standing on the moon, and with twelve stars on her head for a crown”  So that’s the reason why we have those  stars and that moon in our statue, but what are they meant to say to us.

Those who first heard John’s Revelation read to them would recognise all this straightaway. A number of the pagan gods and goddesses were always shown with the stars and the moon, and so our writer is taking pagan symbols and applying them to Mary. We might think that strange, but it was a common Christian tactic in those days to take over such things and show where true power and godliness is to be found. Remember St Paul proclaiming the one true God by referring to a pagan altar to an Unknown God in Athens, (Acts 17:23) and you get the point.

The stars and the moon, of course, represent even to us today something greater than what is here on earth.  I’m not sure whether the fact that there are 12 stars has any pagan significance, but for Jews and Christians the link is obvious. 12 represents the 12 tribes of Israel, all God’s holy people, summed up in Mary. 12 is also the number deliberately chosen by Jesus for the number of his apostles, his most senior followers, to mark his creation of the new Israel, the Church. The moon marks the months and controls the tides and so it declares very strongly that Mary is more than just a simple Jewish girl; that her significance for all human beings is something that goes beyond her ordinary humanity.

But what about that snake? In our Reading we hear her under attack from a dragon, but actually the snake or the dragon represent the same thing, the power of evil that appears strong but that God through Christ has defeated. In our statue the snake has an apple in his mouth. The first Eve was tempted to take the apple, but Mary, the second Eve says Yes to God and No to evil and so plays her part in bringing salvation to the world.

Now some of you might ask the question I used to ask when I looked at such statues; it shows my Protestant background. Where is Jesus in all this? Surely a statue of Mary holding Jesus would be better? But if we go back to the Bible, always worth doing if we are in discussion with Protestants, we see that some of the major things Mary does are done not when she has given birth, but when the baby Jesus is still in her womb. Look at the statue again and make that connection; just as in our 1st Reading and in our Gospel, there is Jesus in her womb.  “Hail Mary…  Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus”.

So, our statue, like our 1st reading, proclaims all sorts of things about Mary at the same time. It shows both her vital role in bearing Jesus in her womb, but also shows that as the Mother of the Lord, the woman who says Yes, she has a special place in bringing people to heaven. So, as we say, when her earthly life ended, she was reunited with her Son with God the Father in the glory of heaven,  above the moon and the stars, ever supporting us and all in need, with her love and her powerful prayers.

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