This year, on Sunday, the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節) will be marked by the rare combination of a supermoon and a total lunar eclipse, which we along the Atlantic (weather permitting) will be fortunate enough to see in its entirety – those of you in East Asia will, alas, miss this event.
Nevertheless, eclipse or not, Chinese all over the world will observe the Mid-Autumn Festival on the fifteenth day (i.e. the full-moon day) of the eighth month. As I have written earlier, ‘it corresponds, for the Chinese, to the Feast of Tabernacles ordered in the Law of Moses, and is therefore a most fitting time to give godly thanks for “the kindly fruits of the earth”.’ In connexion with the moon, however, especially around the autumnal equinox, it also is associated with the increase of yin influences and the decline of yang as autumn continues and becomes cold and wet. The time will come for the earth to rest and, after harvest, for farms to be still, and for the womb to wait in silence. Even as it is an agricultural festival, then, the Mid-Autumn Festival is also a time to remember the being of women. Thanksgiving for harvest and petition for fertility go hand in hand at this time of the year.
Indeed, the Chinese have kept a custom that makes explicit the connexion with fertility, as Zeng Baosun (曾寶蓀) explains:
In addition to enjoying the moon and eating moon cakes, there is also the custom of presenting melons. If a woman was married for a long time and was still childless, friends and relatives had a small boy present her with a melon. This was a very long melon wrapped up in a child’s red silk garment with two golden flowers stuck in it. With the child holding the melon in his arms, gongs and drums sounding, firecrackers going off, and lanterns displayed, they brought the melon to the childless woman’s home, placed it on her bed and covered it with a quilt. Then they came out and loudly offered congratulations to the couple wishing them a child very soon. Naturally, those that presented the melon had to be provided with food and drink and received most graciously; the child that bore the melon was given a gift of money.
Unto us, God willing, a son is given. We may offer prayers that, to the childless, who wait open to the working of providence, Almighty God may indeed provide a child like the son who has brought the melon; but in awaiting a child, shown as a son, Christians also know that the greatest gift is God’s own only-begotten Son Jesus Christ.
Perhaps now the poems of menfolk upon this festival, praising the beauty of the moon, will also turn their rhymes to the subject of God’s saving grace. There is much to be written here about the glory of God, both in the making of nature and in the saving of all creation in Christ.
When we eat our moon cakes, when we see the orange yolks buried in the lotus paste, these will be our hearts’ remembrances toward God: giving thanks to God for his gift of life, we also remember that the seed of life is sowed in the stillness of death. When we see even the winter of discontent, we can remember that God is still there, and that the darkness by which he hides his secret work is like the womb that hides a promised child. Though the West commemorates the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary on 25 March, it is perhaps appropriate that on the other side of the year we should also remember how our blessed Lord did not abhor the Virgin’s womb, but chose rather to give it the greatest dignity and make it the Ark of the Covenant where he would dwell in the flesh. The Mid-Autumn Festival then becomes, before Advent, the first foreshadowing of what is to come. Shortly after the Winter Solstice, marking the return of the light, we have Christmas, the feast at which we rejoice that the Sun of righteousness has entered the world. So the Mid-Autumn Festival brings to us a sweet memory, a memory we can hold and treasure, of what God has done and what God will do among us.