Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Imbolc and the Feast of St. Brigid

When I went to bed late Monday night, the half moon shone  dimly on a blanket of snow. I woke up the following morning to the sound of freezing rain bouncing off ice covered trees. By the time I left for the Cathedral, the last traces of snow and ice were melting in the margins of sidewalks and muddy yards, washed by a steady rain. As I parked my car and walked to the building where I had my first meeting, the sun shone warm on my back as robins, cardinals and blue jays congregated in the grass for a late lunch. 

Welcome to Imbolc, the season of change and transformation-- sometimes all in the course of one day.

Since we were still recovering from our first big snow of the year when February 1 rolled around, I've delayed posting about the season until I could see the tiny tell tale signs of early spring emerging from the thawing earth. 

On the Celtic calendar, February 1 is the beginning of the season of Imbolc, early spring, and the celebration of the feast of St. Brigid. The veneration of Brigid is one of those interesting conflagrations in Celtic spirituality, the coming together of a pre-Christian goddess and fifth century saint whose stories have been woven together to create a tapestry of legends that continues to intrigue and inspire. 

Brighid the goddess invented keening after the death of her son and, according to the story, was the first one to whistle in the dark to let others know of her presence. Brigid the saint traveled through time, had a magic cloak, and always seemed to find a miraculous way to provide for the sick and needy who crossed her path.  They were wise women, known for their powers of healing, and both goddess and saint are credited with being keepers of the flame and patrons of poetry.  

Part of following the path of Celtic spirituality in the 21st century is re-imagining the rituals of the past to fit the world of today. Many of the ancient rituals of Imbolc focus on hearth and home, a realm watched over by Brigid. Cleaning out clutter, kindling the hearth, lighting fires, and inviting the holy to cross the threshold are all activities for the first stirrings of spring.  Below are a few rituals, rooted in traditional celebrations of the season. 


Blessing Home and Hearth
 In some areas of Ireland, the household rites associated with the Feast of St. Brigid began with the head of the family walking around the house three times, to bless the dwelling and those within before Brigid was invited to enter.  As many of us are twenty-first century urban and suburban dwellers, walking around your “house” may necessitate walking around an apartment building, townhouse complex, or even a city block.  As you walk, walk slowly and prayerfully, focusing your intention on bringing protection and well-being to all those within the parameter of your walk.   

Offering Hospitality
Whether she was churning a never ending supply of butter, turning well water into ale, or feeding a stray dog meat from a pot of soup meant for her father’s guest, Brigid was always ready to share food and drink with strangers and friends, animals and humans alike. Often the household rituals on her feast day included some sort of communal or family meal. Extend hospitality by sharing a meal with friends, family or neighbors. Carefully consider what dishes to prepare. As Brigid is the patron saint of cows and dairy farmers, you might want to include cheese, milk or butter as part of your menu. And she also liked beer . . . a lot.

Kindling the Flame
For thousands of years, a sacred fire burned in Kildare—first honoring the goddess Brigid and later kindled and kept by the community who honored Brigid the saint. Light a fire/candle on Imbolc and invite the three fold blessing of the flame for transformation during the coming year.

The Three-Fold Fire of Brigid
Fire in the forge that
shapes and tempers.

Fire of the hearth that
nourishes and heals.

Fire in the head that
incites and inspires.