Today is an auspicious day! The 2nd February is when celebrations in the Celtic, pagan and church calendars align. It is Brigid’s day, when she is honoured as both saint, in the Christian tradition, and goddess with three aspects, maid/virgin, mother and crone. Each aspect is marked in different seasons and this day, the beginning of Spring, celebrates the fruitfulness of womanhood.
Brigid was born in Ireland in AD453 and, having infuriated her father by giving away his wealth and refusing to marry, she chose a religious vocation. It is said that at the moment of receiving the veil, a ring of fire appeared above her head and the bishop consecrating her, elevated her to bishop in his shock and confusion! Perhaps this was no mistake but an intervention by the divine spirit, for she went on to found an educational order for men and women and people came to her for healing at a holy well. She is said to be the keeper of the Sacred Fire and the church in Kildare was built on the site of a pagan temple where a flame burned constantly. Brigid’s sisters maintained this tradition and kept a fire alight for a further 1000 years. She is associated with poetry, prophesy, the importance of friendship with humans and animals, as well as learning and healing. She is often pictured with a white cow and is associated with birth. The word ‘Imbolc’ means milk or ewe’s milk and was thought to come in at this time. She was said to be ‘wet-nurse’ or ‘mid-wife’ to Christ and Imbolc is considered as midwifing the year.
Candlemas celebrates the fruitfulness of another woman, Mary the mother of Jesus. Women were considered unclean until 40 days after childbirth and once this time had elapsed they went to the temple to perform the ceremony of purification. It is when Mary and Joseph present themselves and their newborn son at the temple for this ritual, that the prophet Simeon takes Jesus into his arms, looks to the heavens and says, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the gentiles.” (Luke 2:29-32) These are the words of the Nunc Dimittus which remind us that Christ is a light to all peoples. Traditionally all candles that were to be used throughout the year were blessed at a special service of Candlemas. Yet, Simeon also prophesies to Mary, “A sword shall pierce your soul too.” Tess Ward makes the following comment in response to this, in her excellent book and worship resource, ‘The Celtic Wheel of the Year’, “So here, in the midst of the occasion of Mary’s requirement to be purified from the natural processes, the mess, blood and pain of giving birth, an old man can see what messy, bloody, painful times are ahead for a woman loving from the depths of her mother’s heart (p. 36).”
Last week saw another amazing woman of faith and courage consecrated as bishop. This has felt like a particularly long, painful and traumatic labour! But now, along with Simeon the prophet, we can rejoice that we have seen what we long hoped for, but hardly dared to believe. I offer a prayer, also by Tess Ward, that we might all see more clearly the better future we’re promised through Jesus and have the strength to bear the waiting for the newness that’s yet to come to birth.
midwife of my newness and growth,
tend the fresh shoots of my emerging as I set foot this day.
Heal my birthing soul when I pass through the ring of fire and broken waters on my journey through this world.
Fuse my backbone mettle with your courage
as I stand against all that is unjust.
Craft my words that they might meld heart and mind
and mend with fiery precision.
Befriend my creaturely ways that I might be friend to all your creatures that share our precious planet.
Create in me a prophetic eye that I might see the new thing you are doing this day and have vision for tomorrow.
Healing Spirit, be with me as I walk this new day.”
by Tess Ward, page 46, ‘The Celtic Wheel of the Year’