In December the ancient Celts found themselves under the Elder Moon.
Known as Ruish (roo-esh) in Gaelic, the elder tree was known to protect against negative forces, including pests like fruit flies and mosquitos, and so elder was often hung from doorways or in kitchen windows throughout the year. It was also sought out as medicine for so many, and is said to have natural antiviral properties. The elder tree was one you sought when you needed help.
The elder tree is bruised easily, but also regrows quickly, which is why the ancients named this moon at this time of year for this tree. Everything feels fragile right now. But, as the Irish phrase goes, “Every beginning is weak” (bionn gach tosach lag). Fragility allows for birth.
December is about beginnings sprouting from endings. As we head closer and closer to the solstice, the days shorten almost to the point of non-existence (or, at least it feels like that). But the ancients believed that the sun that faded-but-never-abandoned them made a new covenant annually with the earth in these days.
When Christianity began to have an influence and decided to place the celebration of Jesus’ birth in this month at the time of the Yule celebrations, it made so much sense to the Celts that they didn’t bat an eye: a new covenant with the Son/sun was appropriate in these shadow days.
The ancient Celts felt that December was a time for wombing, anyway. The fields were fallow. The family tended to be physically lax but mentally focused. In December they did their “inner-work,” pondering how the shadows of their own being (as Jung would say) helped them live into their full selves.
We’d do well to follow that lead.
And we may find that, at the end of December, we, like the elder tree, find ourselves being birthed differently into a new year after doing the inner work under the Elder Moon.
Today the church remembers a triple threat of a politician, theologian, and hymn-writer: St. Ambrose of Milan, Peacemaker, Bishop, and Doctor of the Church.
St. Ambrose is the first Roman church leader born into and raised in the faith. His father was a Prefect of Gaul, and Ambrose was sent to study the classics of the law in Rome.
When he was just thirty-three years old he was appointed the governor of Liguria and Aemilia, and took his seat in Milan where the imperial court was regularly convened.
And then it happened: the Bishop of Milan was an Arian (the strain of Christendom that was competing with Orthodox Catholicism at the time…recall the legend of St. Nicholas punching Arius at the Council of Nicaea), and violent clashes started to break out between the Arians and the Catholics.
St. Ambrose kept his cool and quieted the clashes, and because he was so appreciated on both sides of the aisle, he was unanimously acclaimed as the new Bishop even though he hadn’t been baptized or ordained.
It was a “rush order initiation” for in the year 373 (or maybe 374?) St. Ambrose was baptized a Christian, ordained a priest, and consecrated a Bishop.
Immediately St. Ambrose began doing Bishop-y things like giving half his family wealth to the poor and changing his dress and tastes to reflect humility rather than opulence. He also began, in short order, to make Milan a center of learning, and through his own preaching, writing, organizing, and administration had influence far beyond his little corner of the waning Empire.
Through his writing he inspired one who is thought to be, next to St. Paul, the church’s crown jewel theologian: St. Augustine of Hippo (baptized by St. Ambrose in Milan at the Easter Vigil in 387).
But, see, all this influence and competency comes at a price. Justina, the Empress and mother of Valentinian, became jealous of St. Ambrose and how many fans, followers, and ancient retweets he was getting. She secretly devised a coalition to speak out against the Bishop, tried to retake and rename some of his cathedrals and basilicas in the name of the Arian streak of the faith, effectively pitting portions of the church against the other in order to gain their loyalty.
Doesn’t sound at all like politics today…
St. Ambrose decided not to play Justina’s games. He stood fast, at times seeking refuge inside his own church surrounded by his parishioners as Imperial soldiers attempted to capture him. During these moments of siege it is said that St. Ambrose led the gathered congregation in songs that he himself wrote, an impromptu sing-along to wage a non-violent war against the weapons of the state.
Again, doesn’t sound like any protests I know of…
Eventually Justina realized she was never going to have the following of St. Ambrose, and she stopped her assault, the courts withdrew their edicts for Catholic oppression and the arrest of the Bishop, and he got back to writing, preaching, and teaching.
A couple of fun facts: he’s considered one of the four pillar “Doctors of the Church,” and is credited with the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” This last piece of advice was given to his charges who, when they came upon liturgical differences in the Mass that were regional, asked the good Bishop which ordo to follow.
The good Bishop, understanding hospitality, told them to do what the locals do. Because, well, “When in Rome…”
“The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds—and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor…
There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.”
St. Ambrose died on the Vigil of Easter, April 4th, 397. Though some remember him on that day, today is a better opportunity, the day of his baptism-ordination-consecration, because it doesn’t conflict with the moveable Easter Feast.
St. Ambrose is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes the best church leaders are those who know how to stand against the headwinds of worldly power.
And no book can tell you how to do that.
-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-icon written by the saints at Monastery Icons (monasteryicons.com)