For the ancient Celts, October signaled the end of their Autumn and opened the door for the shadowed half of the Celtic year.
Samhain (which literally means “summer has ended”) marks the final feast day of the season, and the convergence of the shadows and the weather inclined the Celts to believe that spirits were able to walk among the living causing mischief, curses, and sometimes blessings.
Practically it meant bringing in the cattle and the sheep down from the summer hillside and into the byre and the stable, now full of the harvested hay brought in throughout August and September.
It was also the time to slaughter the animals and prep them to last as far through winter as possible with salts, cold storage, cottaging, and drying.
The very last bits of barley, wheat, turnips, and apples were picked from the now naked fields, because come November the faeries would start breathing on all the fruit, frosting them and making them inedible.
While the sun still glowed it was also time to get the wood and peat stacked and ready for use. No one wanted to chop and gather in the frigid days coming.
This was a joyous month for the Celts, as the whole family was regularly gathered in the house and the barn: baking, salting, prepping, and preserving, envisioning the coming winter feasts and the cozy days ahead.
The summer sun now became the warm, dim room, and the noisy insects would be replaced with long talks and stories from family and visiting friends.
As our days grow darker and colder, I’m drawn again to my Celtic past and the rituals of these days.
Have you ever bobbed for apples at a Halloween party?
This game is actually ancient, and hails from the Celtic Christians who married the practices of the past with the realities of the present.
The apple was known as the fruit of temptation in Christian circles, but was also a harvest fruit. In the ancient Celtic world, you’d bob for apples to determine who would be married next. The person with the fruit would be visited in their dreams by their true love.
When Christianity came to the Celts, the game took on a more festive Biblical character, as it was associated with the idea of temptation in the days of shadows. Lust, after all, was bad…right?
On the Autumnal Equinox, my mind is brought back to those ancient Celts who knew the Earth was not just alive, but provided us with secrets on how to live.
Balance, Beloved, is more than hard to find…it is also hard to keep. The Earth only finds it twice a year, and is only able to keep it for 24 hours at a time.
But when it does, everything changes!
At the Vernal Equinox the world springs forth with color and newness.
And today? Well, Camus said that Autumn is a “second spring,” where “every leaf is a flower” beginning to blaze.
For the Celts, with over half of the fields cleared by now, it was time to take stock of the harvest, both within the barn of the heart and the barn outback. They would prepare for winter, using what the year so far has given to plot the next phase of life.
Blessed Equinox! Lean into the balance a bit, and learn how to live.
As it approaches midday on September 2nd, I’m meditating on my ancestors (like I find myself doing a lot).
The ancient Celts viewed September as the month of hard field-toil and transition. You gave thanks for the harvest as you took it in…there would be time for a formal celebration at the end of autumn.
But right now? Right now was meant for nose-to-the-grindstone, hard work. August was spent picking the early crops, but now the field is ripe and ready. The rich berries are plump against the azure sky, even as the sun takes its time getting up now, and heads to bed early.
They labeled September as the month of “creative fire,” because the hands were hard at work creating a way through winter, and as the month drew on, the need for morning and evening fires came earlier and earlier.
It is a month of changes, both in the atmosphere and in the home, as we begin turning our full attention to the coming winter.
September is a month where humanity began to regain some balance with the Earth.
The old hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves” reminds me of this. That song was based off of a Psalm, but truly the rhythm of the Psalmist was known in those northern islands even before they knew any part of the Psaltery: this is the rhythm of life, Beloved.
We sow, we wait, we reap, and we celebrate.
Now is the time for reaping, working, regaining balance as we head back into the habits on the far side of summer.
For the ancient Celts, September marked the mid-point of their Autumn life. In these blazing days that might sound strange to our ears (it hardly feels like Autumn to most of us), but on the wheel of the year this quarter is earmarked for “harvest.” Their wheel, their internal rhythm even (and ours!) has the mid-month of every season as the transitional one:
That middle month is the one of transitions with the equinox or the solstice of the season lying in its belly.
September is a season of invention and harvest. The crops are pulled in fully in this month. The fireplace starts to roar at night not only around dinner time, but longer into the evening as cool air sweeps through the house and the canning and drying and preserving that needs to happen for the coming Winter gets underway.
The fire in the hearth is mirrored by the fire starting to show up in the leaves now gloried on their way to death, and the drying fields calming themselves, preparing for new birth next year.
Toward the end of this month, to honor the final bit of the harvest, dried pieces of wheat and barley would be woven into a crown and hung on doors and windows, or worn on the heads of children.
The whole town would come together as the last sheaf was brought in and they’d have a large feast where the last sheaf of the field was woven and decorated. They’d toast the sheaf, saying “Here’s to the one that helped us with the harvest!” Then they’d take the decorated sheaf and hang it in a place of prominence.
This is where we get our modern day “autumn wreaths” that adorn our own doors and fill up your local Michael’s or Kohl’s in the “home decor” section. Today we see these as pretty and festive. For the ancient Celts they were a sign of thanksgiving and triumph, as the harvest gods had once again provided.
Welcome, September, the month of transitions. We thank you once again for the harvest.
For the ancient Celtic Christians, May was the first month of summer. It may feel strange to think of the rhythm of the year in this way, mostly because we’ve been conditioned by society to see May as still part of “spring,” but for those Celts who paid attention to how things look and feel, rather than acquiescing to what others told them to feel, they knew that the change of May meant the beginning of summer.
Their wheel for the year was:
November-December-January: Winter (the cold would set in, ground would freeze, and things took a dormant nature…which is why in the middle of December you’d celebrate the undying light of Christ, reminding yourself that the sun/Son always shines)
February-March-April: Spring (things start to break through the ground, thaws happen, tulips push up and animals stir and mate…which is why Easter is the capstone to the season, the eternal “emergence”)
May-June-July: Summer (heat sets in, you start to do all things out-of-doors, you plant and tend, and the midpoint is the celebration of John the Baptizer/Summer Solstice where you remember that St. John the Baptizer said, “I must decrease so that Christ may increase”…and the sun starts setting a little earlier each day)
August-September-October: Autumn (you celebrate the waning heat, you harvest, you prep and store, and prepare for the winter, with the capstone of the season being All Hallow’s Eve where you give thanks for the harvest and the faithfully departed, knowing winter is coming where nature reminds us that all things die)
This cycle was the year life, but imbued into all of this was the sense of death and regeneration. It was an Easter life.
In our modern days where we’re so tossed back and forth between this event and that event, seeing so much of it all as isolated incidences that rock our boats, we forget the golden thread, the rhythm, or as the ancient Celts would call it, the “heartbeat of the Divine” running through it all.
If we tilt at every windmill, we never stand up straight. The ancient Celts understood this, and so they were able to weather most any storm knowing what season it was.
Now? Now is the start of summer. The season of “out-of-doors.” Take advantage, live into the newness around you, and breathe deeply into the now.
It’s an odd juxtaposition that happens when the secular and the sacred collide in these early Advent days. So many of us (at least, in America) are rushing to get that tree put up, the most ancient pre-Christian solstice symbol, and haul out the red and green decorations.
Meanwhile, the church is singing a bluer song and calling everything to hush for a bit, like you would when a baby is sleeping nearby.
Both responses to this time of year in this hemisphere is appropriate, of course. The ancient Celts would spend this time cozying up their indoor spaces, knowing they’ll be in the shadow of the fireplace for many hours in the coming months. They’d tie greenery to their door as an air freshener, and they’d make warm clothes, tell stories, and play indoor games. In this way, they’re not unlike all of us in our rush to decorate for the Christmas season.
But they’d do this other thing, too: they’d slow down. Their work would stop for a while, except for those necessary things needed to survive the winter. They’d rest longer, going to bed no long after night fell and waking late with the lazy solstice sun. They’d light candles in the morning and the evening, their new sun stolen from their fireplace outfitted with a huge log that, God willing, would last a good while.
They’d cozy and they’d slow.
The secular world is begging you to cozy at this moment. The sacred world is calling you to slow.
And, honestly, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “secular” or “sacred.” Holiness pulsates through everything if our heartbeat is in rhythm with the Divine. So perhaps it shouldn’t be so much the “secular is calling you to cozy,” and the “sacred is calling you to slow,” but rather that the tensions pulling and pushing us in this world are felt forcefully in this moment, which is not a surprise.
We’re in a moment of change, evidenced by those last leaves falling to the ground.
Here’s a deep truth that all of these pushes and pulls point to: life begins in the shadows.
I don’t use “darkness” on purpose, by the way. As prophet and poet Nayyirah Waheed wrote in her collection _Nejma_,
“there is dark and there is anti light these are not the same things”
Language has evolved to the point where we can be careful and choosy with our words (as imperfect as it might be).
Shadows, like that in the Valley of Death that the Psalmist sings of, is a more appropriate description, I think. We’re not talking about a color, we’re talking about an absence of illumination.
All life starts with an absence of illumination.
The Big Bang began with a deep vacuum bereft of light.
The womb which was our first home pulsated with life, but no light.
The seed trying to do what it is meant to do in this moment is buried under the weight of too much earth, and yet it lives.
Life begins in the shadows.
This is why the readings in the church here at the beginning of Advent aren’t of Mary or Joseph or a baby in a manger, but ones of foreboding and nighttime (Luke 21:25-36 kicks off this Advent cycle, and it’s a doozy!).
The church knows, as does the Earth, as has humanity from ancient days, that life begins in the shadows, so if we’re going to talk about redemption and salvation and resurrection and new life, we have to start here.
There is an 8th Century hymn that often kicks off Advent in many spaces, “Creator of the stars of night.” The Latin version of this text is most beautiful, “Conditor alme siderum…” the chorister sings in simple chant tone.
Sidus, where we get siderum can mean just “stars,” and certainly it does mean that. But in this usage it also means all the cosmic bodies: planets, meteors, stars, galaxies.
The church sings to the creator who filled up the vacuum of space and, like the Luke text, invites us to gaze up at the shadows of space in awe and wonder. In the night times of life we ponder such mysteries. Who hasn’t stayed awake in bed with their mind racing?
The shadows are meant for such pondering, for from such ponderings comes imagination and new life and all sorts of things never before seen, as frightening as those moments can be sometimes.
And, as it is, we’re again plunged into such a night time of life in this Advent season.
Change happens in the shadows. Newness starts in the shadows.
Life starts in the shadows.
So Advent must start in the shadows.
So, Beloved, cozy up and slow a bit. Ponder the mysteries with the ancients.
Many have been asking about Anam Cara Community, a new digital-first church plant that’s being organized.
We’re doing it in stages, like all good things should be done. Scaffolding is important. Today though, on the cusp of Thanksgiving, we’re launching our first invitation.
You can sign up to get regular information regarding Anam Cara and what we’ll be about, and we invite you to join us in rethinking Thanksgiving this holiday, and donating to a First Nations mission here in the mountains of North Carolina.
Get rid of the Americana kitsch around this holiday, and practice thanks giving by supporting this ministry that feeds over 700 families a month on their home land in Cherokee.
Click below. You’re welcome to be a part of it all.
In the second creation story from the book of Genesis (yes, there are two…at least two), the Divine brings creatures to the Adam (dust-ling) to see what they would name them (Genesis 2:19). In this creation story it is arguably the first instance of human agency that the Divine invites the human into without any stipulations. Whatever the human names the thing, that is its name. It’s a wonderful instance of human-Divine cooperation in the ordering of the world.
Names are important, Beloved.
They help us understand ourselves. They help others understand us. Names connect us to our past, and are offered on those we love and cherish as a blessing for the future. In these ways names are beautiful, wonderful, and helpful.
Names are important, Beloved…because they matter.
And because they matter, we must also recognize that they can be damaging.
Names that stigmatize drive wedges between humans.
Names that belittle cast people, places, and things in a light that can steal their dignity and cloud their inherent goodness.
Names wrongly applied, like the insistence of some to identify our siblings in the trans community by anything other than their preferred pronouns or chosen first names, harm others with intention.
In these ways names are weapons of cruelty.
Names matter, Beloved.
In thinking about our Guiding Principles, the curation team at Anam Cara believes we must be a community that names things. Taking our cues from that second creation story, we trust that the Divine intends us to be cooperators and even co-conspirators (in the most positive way) in naming what we see around us.
Acts of racism must be named as racist (looking at you school boards banning books that talk about race).
Acts of homophobia must be named as harmful (again, looking at you school boards who ban books talking about sexuality).
Acts of indignity, injustice, and ones that rob others of their imago Dei must be named with honesty and unflinching courage.
And, while we’re naming things, we’ll intentionally be keen to remind others (and ourselves) that they are loved in their imperfection, are beautiful with scars, have the right to be called what they want to be called, and don’t deserve many of the labels the world puts on them.
And the world is excellent at misnaming things.
Imagine if a neighborhood didn’t have to be labeled “up and coming” to be attractive to investors.
Imagine if a child didn’t have to be “free lunch” labeled at school, because everyone got free lunch (this works, by the way, to cut stigma…it’s working in Raleigh right now!).
Imagine if no one ever worried about Critical Race Theory being taught in schools because it’s understood that teaching about racism isn’t demeaning, but rather not teaching about it, is.
In fact: it is literally critical.
Imagine if kids didn’t grow up thinking sex is a bad word, but rather a powerful one. Imagine if adults didn’t have to live thinking that putting a check next to the “married” box made you whole, or that mental health was a scarlet letter, or that popular media didn’t run the table on what counts as beautiful, successful, or powerful.
Jesus was big on naming things: the religious elites were called hypocrites, the last were called first (and the first, last), the outcast was called favored, the child was called a spiritual sage…Jesus named things all the time!
It’s almost like Jesus knew that names were important.
Names are important, Beloved…and we intend to honor that truth.