I haven’t written in some weeks. It’s been a rollercoaster of a January. We have had much to celebrate and just as much to mourn. On the bright side, I have accepted a call as Rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Stone Harbor, New Jersey and my brother-in-law was gifted with a new heart. On the down side I lost a dear friend to breast cancer and like many am mourning the current state of our nation. It has been a difficult month to keep focus as I wrap up all that is ending and embrace all that is beginning.
As I steadily sort through my things, letting go of what’s no longer needed, prayerfully boxing what I’m keeping, I find myself adrift. Recalling memories as I sort through pictures and revisiting my life’s journey, I am reminded of both those times of light and dark. I gather it is apropos as we celebrate groundhog day tomorrow here in the States, along with the Feast of the Presentation/Candlemas on our church calendar.
With it’s foundation in ancient pagan religion, Groundhog day is the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, a middleway as days lengthen. Legend has it that if an animal sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter. I’m happy when it doesn’t.
Ancient Celtic Religion marked this day as Imbolc, it’s actually two days, Feb. 1st and 2nd. It is the ushering in of Spring and the beginnings of new life. Imbolc comes from the gaelic word, Imbolg, meaning in the belly. It is the expectant mother nature full of hope and potential. It is life stirring from within waiting to be reborn, a time of both letting go and making space for all that is to come. Yes, I’m right where the planets have aligned on this very day.
Imbolc gained its ties to the Christian church through the connection of the pagan goddess Brigid and St. Brigid of Kildare. Bridgid was a goddess of healing, craft and poetry. She was a goddess of fire and fertility. In the year 450 Brigid of Kildare was born in Ireland. Sharing the name of the ancient goddess and devouting her life to Christ and the church, the two would be linked forever. Brigid was baptised by St. Patrick, she performed many works. She fed and healed the poor from a very young age and took her final vows from St. Patrick himself. Legend has it that when Saint Patrick heard her final vows, he accidentally used the form for ordaining priests. When the error was brought to his attention, he simply replied, “So be it, my son, she is destined for great things.” And great things she accomplish.
After taking her vows St. Brigid founded a monastary, the Church of the Oak, that was built upon the pagan shrine for the celtic goddess. She organized a religious order and founded two monastic institutions, one for men, the other for women. She later found a school for art.
On the grounds of the Church of the Oak is an eternal flame that was left behind from the pre-christian pagan shrine. St. Bridgid and her religious order relit the flame. The new fire represented the new light of Christianity in Ireland. Today, the Brigid Light is still guarded and tended in Solas Bhride as it was in Kildare many centuries ago by the Sisters of St Brigid. The flame burns as a beacon of hope, justice and peace for Ireland and our world.
Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation is celebrated this day, February 2nd, a time where we bless the candles of the church resembling the outward and visible sign of Christ who illumines our world. We bless the candles to be carried in the procession, the candles that will be used throughout the liturgical year, and candles that are given to the congregation to take home.
Light, we are reminded of light.
The Feast of the Presentation is a celebration of the Purification of the Holy Family. Under Jewish Law, on the eighth day, after Jesus’ birth, he was circumcised. Mary continued to stay at home for 33 days for her blood to be purified. After the 40th day, Mary and Joseph came to the temple with Jesus for the rite of purification. This rite generally included the offering of a sacrifice — a lamb for a holocaust (burnt offering) and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering, or for a poor couple who could not afford a lamb, two pigeons or two turtledoves. Joseph and Mary made the offering of the poor (Lk 2:24), two pigeons and did not bring a lamb, as Jesus was the lamb of God.
Before entering the temple the Holy Family encounters Simieon,
Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.
A light… Here is that symbol again, light. A Light to enlighten the nations, there is hope…
When I paint, I generally start backward. I wonder if my prayers are set that way. A little backward, starting from the dark and working my way to the light. You see, I set up my canvas, and like most canvas’ it sits on the easel blank and starchy white. I never know what to make of that, no matter the plan or thought or even the sketch, so the very first thing I do is paint it black. From their, I gather my prayers, play my music, light my incense and wait for the Holy Spirit to fill my palate and move my brush. Little by little from out of the dark a creation is born. Sometimes the birthing process is short-lived, other times it is fostered out of months of looking for the light to come from the shadows of the dark.
The world in its divisions can seem dark at times. It can easily distract from the promise of new life and seem rather hopeless and unjust, however; when I think of our celebrations this Sunday, and I think of the new life about to be born of me, the new life that’s about to take hold of my congregation, the new life that has gifted my brother-in-law and all whom he has touched, and the new life my son is about to engage in on his own, I see the light coming from out of the darkness. I see the hope and gladness of a new day. I see that we like St. Brigid are connected by this eternal flame that gives us breath, Jesus the light to enlighten the nations.
I am reminded of the Rabbi who asked his students, how do you know light? And the first student said, “When you can see the difference between a sheep and a dog in the field.” The Rabbi said, “No. How do you know light?” And the second boy said, “When you can see the difference between a fig tree and a peach tree.” “No,” said the Rabbi. Frustrated the boy said, “Then how do you know light, Rabbi?” and the Rabbi responded, “You know light when you look at another and see that each is your sister and brother. Then and only then will you know light.”
I am reminded that even in the midst of our divided world that Christ lives in each of us and every day is a chance to renew our lives in Christ. Like the flicker of a flame we will bend, and brighten, but we shall live eternally in Christ our King. Like St. Brigid, we must tend the flame that lights the world, feed the poor, clothe the homeless, and love one another. There is hope, even in the dark. There is life waiting to be born and born again.
Lord, you fulfilled the hope of Simeon and Anna,
who did not die until they welcomed the Messiah.
May we, who have received these your gifts beyond words prepare to meet Christ Jesus when he comes to bring us eternal life; for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.