Moths in the Moonlight
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | January 4, 2018Hi friends, this weekend we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. A star, a light of heaven, appears in the sky that the Magi might navigate their way to the Son of God. It’s that guiding star that’s got me thinking about something I learned about moths a few years ago. It’s the only thing I know about moths: like the Magi, nocturnal moths are creatures who navigate by the lights of heaven.
You’ve probably observed that moths seem to be attracted to light. The truth is they aren’t attracted to lights; they’re confused by them. Most nocturnal moths navigate by moonlight or starlight. These light sources are far enough away that they appear at “optical infinity” to the mothy eye. “Optical infinity” means the light source is far enough away that the rays of light shining from it are effectively parallel when they strike the eyeball.
When a moth flies around, doing whatever moths do, she finds her way by changing course relative to the parallel rays of light shining from the moon. But if a moth gets too close to a brighter, artificial light source like a street light, she begins to navigate by that instead. If the streetlight is closer than the threshold of optical infinity, then the rays of light shining from it are no longer parallel and radiate out from the bulb in a million directions. When a moth tries to navigate in these circumstances, she flies in circles around the light fixture, unable to understand why she isn’t getting anywhere. After a while, she tires and lands. If she lands close enough to the light source (inside a lampshade, for example) the brightness tricks the moth into thinking the sun has risen—so she goes to sleep, as any nocturnal creature would do. When the real sun eventually rises, it’s as though the whole world conspires to prevent her from ever waking up again. She’s robbed of her beloved dark.
This bit of mothiness is a good metaphor for Christians for two reasons. First, the simple fact is that, even though moths navigate by moonlight, no moth ever tried to fly to the moon. The moon and stars enable the moths to navigate here on earth; they’re not far off fixtures for which moths sit and yearn. Optical infinity represents a kind of boundary between moth and moon, but it is a boundary crossed only by the moonlight, never the moth.
Likewise, the distinction between creature and Creator is absolute, but it is one the Creator freely and joyfully crosses so as to put us at rights with the world. We Christians too often make the mistake of thinking that the light of God is simply an otherworldly destination, as though the purpose of faith, the bible, church, and all the rest were to get people a ticket off of earth one day. But to think like that is to be a moth flying to the moon. To put it another way: imagine if the Magi had forsaken their pilgrimage to Jesus and had instead become astronauts blasting off for the Star of Bethlehem itself. It’s silly. God did not make us creatures of the earth by accident. Earth is our ecosystem.
Second, it is the moon’s sheer distance from the earth which allows moths to navigate. The principle of optical infinity means that only unchanging celestial lights like the moon and stars are always distant enough to be reliable for navigation. Headlights on a car, the light in a mall parking lot, even an Advent candle can run the risk of eclipsing the subtle but constant light of the heavens. Moths can navigate by moonlight because moonlight simply isn’t from here.
Likewise, people of faith can navigate the world by the light of God because God was not created: God isn’t “from here.” We can trust in and practice God’s attributes—virtues like patience, generosity, and hope—because they belong to God. The whole spectrum of God’s goodness shines from optical infinity, like parallel rays of light, illuminating the earth from above. When we see those qualities at work in our friends or loved ones, we are seeing a person navigate by the light of God. We’re seeing an unconfused moth doing what unconfused moths do. We’re seeing a Magi on her pilgrimage: not a perfect person, but a person with purpose, generosity, a measure of determination, someone who knows what she knows and pretends to no more than that.
When we see someone operating out of fear, like King Herod trying to kill all the Israelite baby boys born around the time of Jesus’ birth, we see a moth bewitched by power, prestige, or some other manmade light. Herod spirals into tighter and tighter circles of exhaustion and anxiety. A sinner like Herod, like you or me at our worst, is a creature navigating by a light too small and too harsh to bear the full weight of his needs. The flickering socio-political order to which Herod adheres simply isn’t big enough to direct him to the security he desperately seeks. Eventually, he can no longer circle, but falls asleep under the harsh glare of his own power mongering, perhaps never to wake again.
Sin, it seems, is more like the confusion of a moth in a floodlight than the breaking of a divine rule. The moth doesn’t navigate by moonlight because the moon would get angry if she didn’t, but because it’s good for her and her ecosystem. It’s how she’s made. It’s just mothy to judge everything by a moonbeam. Like Sister Moth, Christians try to do the things we are called to do because it’s how we are made: in God’s image, the perfection of which is Jesus. To feed people, to comfort, to take up our crosses—it’s just mothy. It’s just how resurrection creatures are made.
Epiphany is like this: we flit around the streetlights down here, spiraling, starving, wearing ourselves ragged. Then one starry evening Moonlight Herself takes wing alongside us. “This way,” she says. “Follow me.” And we’re off to sip the dew from an evening primrose.
Or whatever it is unconfused moths do.