In America this may be Groundhog’s Day, but in Celtic spirituality these days are known as Imbolc, or “in the belly,” because you’re at the halfway point between the equinox and the solstice, and you’re emerging into spring.
Christians celebrate Candlemas today, where new candles are blessed, as the ones lit at the Solstice are now spent. And in services many will hear about the Presentation of Christ, where the ancient prophets Simeon and Anna lift him up and bless him as the light of the world.
The symmetry is stunning and intentional.
These hinge days between seasons are worth paying attention to, as our mothers and fathers did.
So bless your new candles, because you’ve spent the old ones in these winter days, and start opening the shades.
It’s time to wake from our hibernation, blink, and live again.
“What’s going to happen?” she wondered. “There has to be a bigger purpose…”
“Why?” he asked honesty.
“Because I need it all to mean something,” she replied, tears welling up in her eyes.
“We all want things to mean something in some bigger plan,” he said, “but what if they don’t? What if the map is being drawn one second at a time? Does that mean it’s all…well..meaningless?” he countered.
“Well, no…” she said. “I would just like some assurances.”
“I’m not sure life gives you those,” he said. “What if the larger point is for us to embrace that things have meaning not because there’s some ‘larger plan,’ but because our small, little plans are beautiful enough? And the mistakes? They don’t need to fit in some larger scheme to be redeemed. They’re redeemed because we learn from them, heal them as best we can, and move forward just a little bit on this ever-evolving, ever-scrolling map we make.”
“Significance,” he went on, “is not assigned from above. It’s assigned from within. Things mean something because they’re important to us, to you, to him. Or her. It’s subjective, by God. And that’s OK. It doesn’t make it less. It probably makes it more.”
“More?” She closed her eyes trying to wrap her head around it all.
“So, my quest for certainty is a fool’s errand?” she wondered.
“No,” he said, “because you’re not a fool. It’s the most human thing in the world, I think. But what if we just got used to embracing the idea that there is no certainty?”
“The Christian Celts, for the greater part of two millennia, were neither puritanical nor dualistic. They were close to the Earth’s cycles of fertility. They saw the Earth as good, sexuality as good, life as good–all being generous blessings.
The Celts have always been ‘night people’ as well–the night being a holy time for storytellers, song, and mirth. Celtic poets went into the holy dark to seek its blessings and hone their craft.”
-William John Fitzgerald-
This is all probably why I’m theologically non-dualistic and love stories. This is my heritage.
This Sunday many churches will conflate two festivals, and with good reason.
Those without Epiphany services will integrate a migration of the Magi at the beginning, but focus on the Baptism of Christ for the meat of the service.
By the by: If you’ve never done this hybridization, let me know. I’m happy to pass along a worship guide.
But to aid you in your inspiration and sermon writing, even at this late hour, check out what Tamika and Jason have to say on the readings (link below).
And, if you just want a bit of inspiration, remember that the ancient Celts held that water was not only necessary for life, but the lifeblood of all things. Water feeds and destroys, breeds and bears forth in this world.
If the Christ was to do some saving, he needed to be drenched in the source of life we have on earth.
The Celtic calendar was built on a wheel, an ancient wisdom of spirals and turning on which they trusted all life to be built upon. It was a dance that humanity participated in along with everything else cosmic to microscopic.
There were two halves, the “Sam” (summer) and the “Gam” (winter), and those were divided again with Samhain in October (the start of winter) and Beltaine in May (the start of summer), and further divided by Imbolc in February and Lughnasadh in August. In between all of those were the celestial markers of equinoxes and solstices, further providing some guidance as to what rhythm the Celts would be adopting at a particular time of year.
This is the eightfold pattern of their year, spinning round and round.
And each day itself was said to mirror this pattern with dusk (wintering) and dawn (summering) and noon and midnight. In other words: each day held a year.
A similar wisdom is seen in the ancient creation stories (Genesis follows this pattern), and also the eschatalogical understanding that each day holds the liturgical year (waiting, celebration, mourning, growing, etc.).
All of this is ancient, cycling wisdom at play, if we’re willing to pay attention.
In a modern Celtic understanding, January affords us the opportunity to focus in on thresholds (liminal spaces from the Latin “limen” which literally means “threshold”). Though it was not the ancient New Year for the Celts (which was probably Samhain), the mentality of the people was one of adaptation and so we find it has shifted to enfold the Gregorian calendar into its thoughtful rhythm.
January is our modern threshold month. It is the doorway, the threshold, to a new year. For the ancient Celts thresholds were holy places in the home, the barrier between the world and the family, a portal through which humans, as well, as other spirits traversed. It was neither here nor there. The dirt of thresholds was seen as holy ground, good for repairing relationships and cleansing the soul (haven’t you ever said, “it is good to be home!”?).
When entering an ancient Celtic home you’d say a quick blessing just inside the doorway called “The Welcome of the Door.” This is mirrored in many religions, but specifically for Western Christians we see this practice adopted on January 6th as doorways are blessed in honor of the Epiphany and the Magi crossing the threshold of the home of Mary and Joseph to see the Christ child.
January, as our modern threshold, provides us a similar opportunity for blessing and newness, is what I’m saying. The wheel is spinning, but there are important markers throughout, and now we are at the threshold of 2023 and a “Welcome of the Door” is in order.
“Sometimes writing sits in you like a wild animal. Maybe you see its eyes. Maybe you don’t see it at all, but the hair on the back of your neck knows it is there where the deepest shadows lie. Often the shadows lie about what’s hiding in them.
The panther that has stalked you since you were a child is old now. No longer wild, and tired of guarding the treasure you yourself left behind– blind and deaf, she will give it all to you if you just let her go.
But how are you to know whether the fox on the hill in the cemetery carries your mother’s name or is the same fox you saw crossing your back yard in the snow
unless you put your pen to paper and use it to release the animal that hides in the shadow of your hand.”
Christ climbed down From his bare tree This year And ran away to where There were no rootless Christmas trees Hung with candycanes and breakable stars
Christ climbed down From his bare tree This year And ran away to where There were no gilded Christmas trees And no tinsel Christmas trees And no tinfoil Christmas trees And no pink plastic Christmas trees And no gold Christmas trees And no black Christmas trees And no powderblue Christmas trees Hung with electric candles And encircled by tin electric trains And clever cornball relatives
Christ climbed down From his bare tree This year And ran away to where No intrepid Bible salesmen Covered the territory In two-toned Cadillacs And where no Sears Roebuck creches Complete with plastic babe in manger Arrived by parcel post The babe by special delivery And where no televisioned Wise Men Praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey
Christ climbed down From his bare tree This year And ran away to where No fat handshaking stranger In a red flannel suit And a fake white beard Went around passing himself off as some sort of North Pole saint crossing the desert to Bethlehem Pennsylvania In a Volkswagen sled Drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer With German names And bearing sacks of Humble Gifts From Saks Fifth Avenue For everybody’s imagined Christ child
Christ climbed down From his bare tree This year And ran away to where No Bing Crosby carolers Groaned of a tight Christmas And where no Radio City angels Iceskated wingless Thru a winter wonderland Into a jinglebell heaven Daily at 8:30 With Midnight Mass matinees
Christ climbed down From his bare tree This year And softly stole away into Some anonymous soul He waits again An unimaginable And impossibly Immaculate Reconception The very craziest Of Second Comings