The ancient Celts found October to rest under the Ivy Moon. Now half past the month, the harvest is pretty much done and everything is starting to wear its nakedness.
But they called this Autumn moon Ivy Moon because ivy has a difficult time dying, and can live on even after the host plant has died. Ivy, for them, was a reminder that everything goes on in some form or fashion: life, death, rebirth.
It’s the way of things.
Ivy is strong, evergreen, resilient. Though the Earth is wearing their nakedness in these days, Ivy reminds us that the wheel is turning, not dying. It is spinning, not stopping.
As the weather began to cool, the Celts spent more and more time in doors telling stories and singing songs. As we approach the equinox, my noon thoughts landed here briefly today.
Songs, and instruments, were (and are!) very important to Irish and Scottish families. Many families employed a harpist full-time to be available for parties, dinners, and to compose and perform at weddings and funerals. As Gaelic culture waned, these professional harpers weren’t able to be privately employed any longer, and became wandering bards exchanging songs and stories for meals and a bed for the night.
It is said that Irish appreciate three skills in particular: the ability to compose a clever verse, music on the harp, and the art of shaving a face.
This last week I watched, to much delight, “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the latest Marvel offering in their growing pantheon of adventure flicks.
Spoiler alert: the giant gloating goats are the best characters in the movie.
But the central premise, and I’m not spoiling anything here, revolves around the villain (Gorr) of the movie. He and his young daughter are members of tribe of people who’ve sworn allegiance to a deity, a god whose image he wears around his neck. He prays fervently to this deity that his daughter might be spared from the death plaguing his tribe, but his prayers go unanswered.
She dies (this is not a spoiler).
He gets a chance to have an audience with this deity, who laughs at his supplications and scoffs at his sadness and starvation, all the while sumptuously dining in front of him. Enraged, Gorr grabs a mystical blade and destroys the god, going on a crusade to eliminate all gods from existence.
After all, if the gods are unable to help their supplicants (at best) or unwilling (at worst), why have them at all?
Taika Waititi, the director and co-writer of the film, treads on fascinating theological ground here. I’m unsure if it’s intentional or accidental (I know very little about his personal background), but the central question of this plot is exactly the existential crisis that so many religious adherents, philosophers, and believers-turned-atheist/agnostics have faced.
What good is believing in a god/God if prayers go unanswered?
Conventional Christianity has often touted that when it appears prayers are unanswered, it is simply God’s “no” to the prayer.
This, to me, is a huge copout. It’s like carrying a rock in your pocket and claiming it keeps away tigers because you’re never attacked by tigers. Correlation and causation are not the same thing, and honestly the church would do well to stop saying this line to people despairing that their prayers seem to go unheeded, especially in such tragic situations as the one plaguing Gorr the God Butcher. Too many children have become “another angel in God’s heaven” because “God needed them more” than their grieving parents.
That’s a bunch of bullshit, and the church knows it. It’s theological abuse, not to mention just crappy theology.
If we want to wade into a bit of honesty…and I think we should…we need to admit that prayer is not something that can provably influence external outcomes. There are too many variables in this world to say, with certainty, that prayers move the Divine needle. Sure there are Biblical stories that suggest it (Abraham and Moses were known for changing God’s mind), and Biblical stories that seem agnostic on it (Jesus himself prays for a different outcome and yet hangs on a cross), but we cannot view those as prescriptive stories, but rather descriptive points of view (though the parables of Jesus encourage honest and persistent prayer…to what end, though?).
Rather prayer, it seems, is meant to elicit internal change, rather than external magical change. That is, prayer affects the pray-er more than anything.
Which is important, Beloved! Please don’t think this is a lesser thing. In fact, I’d probably posit it is a greater thing. I’m not sure we need a Divine who is able to be easily persuaded by supplications or who tilts at every windmill.
But this is a truth that the Eastern faiths seem to have realized a lot sooner than the Westernized versions we find around us today: prayer changes the pray-er first.
If not, solely.
That does not mean we shouldn’t be honest in our prayers. After all, expressed honesty puts us in touch with our deepest longings and desires, especially those often suppressed in life (such honest expression is a change-agent!).
Honesty is important.
But we do not have a Divine ATM at our finger tips.
Saying this truth out loud has gotten me in deep trouble many times. A few times it’s caused people to leave my parishes, or threaten to leave.
Prayer is about relationship: with the Divine, and within ourselves. Prayer is about honest expression, getting to the core nugget of what our deepest hopes are in any given situation (or just in general!).
I’ve come to see that prayer is about changing our hearts to accept and move forward more-so than changing God’s heart, Beloved.
This is not a popular opinion, and that’s ok.
But it has in fact been comforting to me many times. I dare say it’s kept me in the faith more than a few times. Because when you look at the honest prayers of people who sweated in prayer over the bed of a dying person, who visualized their cancer going away only to have it spread ever more rapidly, you cannot help but think what Gorr thinks in this philosophically deep (and deeply amusing) movie: God is either unable or unwilling.
And neither of those are great propositions.
So, perhaps it’s less that, and more that prayer is not supposed to do what we’ve been told and taught it does.
The ancient Celts who adopted Christianity into their worldview had this belief that, with every birth Christ was also birthed into the world. In the inside of every human a bit of that redemptive possibility had taken root. We, in their theology, were not “original sin” carriers, but the bearers of “original possibility.”
So, too, they believed every moment could be an Easter moment, because redemption was inside everything…it just needed time and the right environment to blossom.
The Tuesday of Holy Week, as Spring cleaning continued, they turned their attention outside the house: hanging wreathes and garlands, pruning, and (where possible) planting or prepping to plant.
Easter was coming and it could arrive at any moment.
As we enter Holy Week, a thought on the events to come:
The Triduum, or Great Three Days, is the antidote to an overly saccharine Easter.
Maundy Thursday gathers the disciples, including you, around a shared table where we all get our feet washed and we all share in dipping our bread in the same bowl as Jesus.
Then the sanctuary is stripped, like our souls now feel stripped, as we realize not only what is about to happen, but also that we must stay to bear witness.
On Good Friday we come not to church, but, with everything bare and the lights low, to a darkened tomb. There we encounter the story of that fateful night, a story we know well not only because we’ve heard it every year, but also because we’ve lived it. It’s familiar.
We’ve all been betrayed by our friends, and have all betrayed a friend. We’ve all been falsely accused and accused others without evidence, let alone our unspoken shame knowing our justice system does this, and profits from it all the time.
We’ve all seen power prey on the powerless. This is that story, but instead of the local courtroom it’s the courtroom of the cosmos.
The reproaches are sung where we’re challenged to answer unanswerable questions of eternal proportions, and the service ends with the cross alone left in the room.
We are, in the end, left only with the cross: this twisted tool of torture to which we now cling, hoping that something good can yet come from it.
And then we spend the whole next day in the quiet of non-answers. And at dusk we stream back to that tomb, create a new fire to keep our souls warm, and tell campfire stories of salvation to console ourselves.
“Remember that time that God created the world?” we ask around the fire. “And remember when God saved those folks from the fiery furnace?” We retell these stories as a way to spark hope that, as in those impossible moments, God might be able to do something new with this impossible moment. We teach these stories to our babies, even as we reteach it to ourselves.
And then before we know it, the tomb has turned into a lush garden, and that tomb that was full of death is suddenly full of life: flowers, water, and yes, living bodies.
Our bodies who now gather around the body of the risen Christ now seen in bread, wine, water, and the faces around us. And we baptize people who have newly heard all of this. And we sing and dance and party because, yup, resurrection has happened again, by God!
The whole arc has import. Every scene plays a part.
Bishop Theodulph of Orleans penned the hymn my heart is singing on this Palm Sunday morning, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.”
It truly is one of my favorites, made more sacred by the fact that we really only sing it once a year.
He is said to have written it from his prison tower, thrown there by King Louis the Debonair, son of Charlemagne.
The story goes that the Bishop wrote this hymn and, in the year 821 as the Emperor passed by on Palm Sunday heading to Mass at the cathedral, he sang it loudly over the passing procession from his stone entombment. The emperor, taken with the song, released the good Bishop.
Truly the rocks themselves will shout for justice.
The Christian Celts (and the pre-Christians Celts, even, celebrating the newly thawed ground and the emergence of Spring) would celebrate Easter week with signs of new life and abundance.
Children would go about looking for nests in trees and underbrush, collecting any eggs they could find. They’d hide them in cubbies in their rooms, or under their houses, and on Easter they’d haul their findings out into the woods and have a pre-dawn breakfast of roasted eggs with the other children of the town.
On Easter Sunday the town would come together, having reserved some of those eggs for cake baking, and they’d present a village cake called a “prioncam cake,” which loosely means “capering cake” or “dancing cake.” It was decorated with woodland animals and a garland of wildflowers.
They’d put the cake in the middle of the gathering, and around it they’d dance and prance to fiddle and pipe. The best dance won the prize, the cake, hence that old saying, “That takes the cake!”
Now, on this week before Holy Week, is the time to start gathering your eggs…
Today the church holds a somber fast traditionally known as Ash Wednesday which dates back to the 11th Century.
In a number of places in the Hebrew scriptures ashes were associated with penance and remorse. The books of Jonah, Amos, and Daniel all note the practice of heaping ashes upon your head as a outward display of how guilt and penitence feel inside.
As the church year begins to ponder the death of the Christ in anticipation for resurrection, a more introspective, prayerful, and yes, honest tone is kept. Ash Wednesday is the start of that long road to Calvary.
While some might consider the practice to be sad or even scary (after all, who likes considering their mortality?!), the wise mystics of all faiths remind us that we must ever keep death before our eyes if we are to truly live.
You cannot outrun mortality, Beloved.
You cannot out-diet, out-exercise, out-supplement, out-buy, or out-smart the quiet, pervasive truth that all creation is indeed, dust at our core (beautiful stardust, to be exact), and we will all one day return to that dust.
There is no out.
And yet, as is true with all paradox, there is a certain amount of freedom that comes with embracing this hard truth. Being Wonder Woman and Superman for too long weighs on us all, and we’re really not meant to fly anyway.
We’re meant to walk, which means we stumble like all walking beings do from time to time. The reality of our imperfection is, too, a gift of grace.
After the church and the empire had joined hands, the rhythm of the church year was overlaid on the rhythm of the ancient celebrations of humans.
Ash Wednesday, the day of penitence, became a massive event; a “full Nineveh moment” in the face of the “holy” church’s Jonah proclamation: “Repent, lest ye be damned!”
Sackcloth. Ashes. Solemnity. That was the prescription. Interestingly enough, the diagnosis was proclaimed by the entity who also claimed to have the cure. Religion tends to do that…
But the people, used to more festive holidays, demanded some revelry before the fast. Intrinsic in our human bones, divorced of any religious pietistic profundity, we all know that a fast is seen best through the lens of a feast, and vice versa. A little bit of denial needs a little bit of indulgence to truly know what you’re missing, right?
And so Carnival was declared, a time to fatten our stomachs, our spirits, and our souls before the sobriety of Lent.
Masks were handed out so that, if you were in hiding for a crime, you could come out of your shelter and join in the fun. A hall pass of sorts. Acts of extreme gluttony are best done anonymously, right? On Carnival, everyone is criminal in some way, everyone is queen and king of their universe for just a bit.
The time for bending a knee will come; for sure. One day all masks fall.
But today is a day for reclining, gesticulation, and for pretending we don’t fear fat and sumptuousness, if only for a bit!
In Celtic spirituality, February is associated with the rowan tree. Its red berries were thought to guard against all sorts of bad things.
They’d put rowan branches on their cattle sheds and dairy barns to keep the meat and milk fresh and free of disease, and across Celtic lands crosses of rowan twigs were tied with red thread and carried in pockets or sewn into the linings of coats for traveling mercies.
Since the saint of the month, Saint Brigid, was associated with flame and fire, the blazing red berries were thought to be little glimpses of her favor.
I found a modern Celtic prayer to say under the Rowan Moon (February’s moon). And since it’s the last day one can say it, I thought I’d throw it out there.
What I love about this prayer is that, while images of Christ/love and the sun are really common, we don’t get many images of Christ/love being seen in the moon. But in the month where the moon still outshines the sun, it makes sense to have a prayer that highlights this truth, right?
Bright glory, bright moon, the moon that shines on Brigid, lamp of the poor, love, light, illumined by God. Bright moon of glory, teach me good purpose toward all creation. Bright moon of grace, teach me good prayer in accord with Christ’s heart.
Fiery moon of great light, be in my heart be in my deeds be in my wishes. Teach me your grace. Bright moon over Brigid, your light my hope, your light on my purpose here, in accord with God’s satisfaction.
Bright fire, bright moon, point my heart to God’s repose. Point me to my rest, with the Son of Tranquility.