This is a holy weekend.
Today, many of our Christian friends are celebrating Candlemas, which commemorates the day the baby Jesus was presented by his parents to the priests in the Temple. It is also the day when the candles for the church year are traditionally blessed.
Today is also Groundhog Day and Superbowl Sunday, and I imagine that some of us celebrate one or both of those.
And yesterday, February 1st, our friends and neighbors from pagan and earth-centered traditions – including, perhaps, some among us, celebrated the fire festival of Imbolc. Imbolc is one of the 8 festivals that make up the Pagan Wheel of the Year, positioned between Yule and Ostara.
Astronomically speaking Imbolc is known as one of four cross-quarter days, and is the mid-way point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Most of us would call it the middle of winter, but to the ancient Celts, modern Pagans, and many in Ireland today, it is actually considered to be the beginning of spring.
Imbolc marks the moment when the sun’s return seems to quicken and the days begin to get noticeably longer here in the northern hemisphere. It is a time associated through the roots of its name with the birth of lambs and with lactating ewes. It is a time of birth, newness, creativity, promised abundance, and renewed hope.
Imbolc is also a day associated with the ancient Celtic goddess Brigid – or Breedj or Brihg – in the Pagan tradition and, not coincidentally, in the Christian tradition, yesterday was the Feast Day of St. Brigid, perhaps the most beloved Saint in modern day Ireland and elsewhere.
Who was this woman, Brigid? Was she a goddess or a saint?
Many would say “…the saint and the goddess are one and the same.” As one writer put it, “She never left. No other Western goddess has an unbroken history of worship.” (Lunea Weatherstone) She was simply so beloved by the pre-Christian people of Ireland that they would not (could not?) give her up when Christianity arrived in their land. Instead, the church was forced to adopt her tradition, and the saint tradition came to peacefully co-exist with the goddess tradition.
As goddess, she was said to be the daughter of the Dagda – the “good god” of Irish mythology – and the Morrigan – the great queen and warrior goddess of the Celts. She was said to be either one – or possibly three different sisters, all named Brigid – the goddess of poetry, the goddess of smithcraft, and the goddess of healing.
As saint, she was said to be the daughter of a pagan king and a Christian slave mother.
In both her forms, she is associated with the sun. She is a fire goddess. And, according to stories of the saintly Brigid’s birth, the light emanating from her infant head was so bright, that, as one writer puts it, “The radiance of the sleeping child…made [her] cottage appear to be in flames,” which, as you can imagine, concerned the neighbors! (Lunea Weatherstone)
Because she is associated with the sun, she is also associated with mornings and sunrises. And with the return of the sun and the coming of spring. She is said to spread her green cloak across the ground each year, which represents the greening of the landscape as the sun warms the earth and the snow melts away.
And she has some association with the blackbird of our first hymn, Morning Has Broken, which is sung to a Gaelic tune. Ravens are said to be the first birds to nest each year in Ireland, right around the time of Imbolc, and so they are a sign that spring is returning
Brigid is associated not only with fire, but also with water and wells. She is associated, too, with cows and lambs and milk and butter. She feeds the hungry, she helps the poor, she heals the lepers. She purifies the reivers – those poor bandits who must steal in order to feed their families. She mourns dead soldiers, she defends the rights of women, she is the guardian of newborns and orphans, and was even said to have been the midwife to Mary in Bethlehem and the foster mother of Jesus.
She is kind and gentle and compassionate, but also feisty and fierce, strong and independent, clever and even subversive. What is not to love about Brigid?
So many of the stories told about Brigid reveal her hospitality and her generosity. This morning Lauren told the story of how Brigid once gave all of her family’s butter and milk away to feed the poor, which upset her father. Then we heard the story of how Brigid gave her father’s fancy jeweled sword to a leper so that he could sell it to buy food. There are also many stories of her kindness to animals, including this one:
“A sad and wretched hound came to the house of Brigid one day, begging for food. Moved by the dog’s mange and bony body, Brigid gave him one-fifth of the bacon she was preparing for the people in the house. The dog swallowed the meat in one gulp and begged for more. As she could not bear to see the animal so hungry, Brigid gave him yet another piece of bacon, leaving only three-fifths left for the household. A house guest, whom Brigid thought was asleep, had spied on her and saw what bacon was left. Surely, there would not be enough to feed the inhabitants and so the guest told…Brigid’s father of the canine being fed what was needed for the house. [Her father], angry, rushed to Brigid and demanded the truth. Brigid admitted to having fed the dog from the household goods, but then said to her father of the bacon pieces, “Count them.” [He] counted the pieces in the pan and sure enough, there was plenty for the house – more than had been in the stores before they’d gone to bed the night before. The household ate plentiful food, with the exception of the tattling guest. Brigid took the guest’s portion down the road to feed the poor, her new dog friend trotting along beside her.” (Courtney Weber)
Saint Brigid is also the patroness of beer. According to one writer (irishamericanmom.com): “She brewed beer. She served beer in abundance. She drank beer. She gave her beer away. And when she didn’t have enough beer to go around she miraculously created more beer from water.” She’s the kind of goddess you’d probably like to have as a guest at your Super Bowl party!
There’s even a famous prayer attributed to Saint Brigid in which she writes about Heaven as if it were an Irish pub. It is a vision of joyful abundance:
I should like a great lake of beer to give to God.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be tippling there for all eternity.
I should like the [people] of Heaven to live with me, to dance and sing…
…White cups of love I’d give them with a heart and a half.
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer to every [one].
I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot,
Because the happy heart is true…
…I’d sit with the [people] of God,
There by the great lake of beer
We’d be drinking good health forever,
And every drop would be a prayer.
But mind. According to one devotee, “She was also known for withholding beer from those whose greed and selfishness displeased her. She would change water into beer for the poor, and beer into plain water for the high and mighty who refused to care for them.” (Lunea Weatherstone)
This month we begin our exploration of identity and belonging. And I said in the service description for this morning that I’d start by reflecting on religious identity. I also want to say a few words about the difference between religious identity and theological identity.
My religious identity is, of course, Unitarian Universalist. I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist now for 26 years. When people ask me what I am, that’s what I tell them.
But because Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion, saying that I’m a Unitarian Universalist doesn’t define my beliefs. And so, my religious identity is different from my theological identity.
My theological identity is more complicated. Theologically, I still identify as a Christian, although as a very progressive and somewhat heretical one. I identify as a Universalist, who believes that we all come from and will return to the same source, that there is no hell in which some souls will languish and be punished while others are saved.
My theological identity has also been shaped by my study of Taoism and Buddhism, and of earth-centered traditions, including paganism and Druidry, and also by my study of energy-arts such as Tai Chi and Reiki and magick. And so, if you were to ask me how I identify theologically, today, I might say that I identify as a Universalist Christian Kitchen Witch. Tomorrow, I might say something slightly different.
As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm our 3rd and 4th principles, which speak to the pursuit of spiritual growth and the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. One of the wonderful things about Unitarian Universalism is that we can bring with us what is important to us from our previous religious experiences, and that we are encouraged to continue to explore. My own search for truth and meaning has led me to Brigid. She appeals to me in part because of the way she transcends religious tradition, and is honored by Christians, pagans, and druids, alike. And also because she represents the divine feminine in a culture where Christianity is so-often brutally patriarchal.
Later this year, you will be asked as part of a Search Committee survey to identify yourself theologically. Are you a theist? An atheist? An agnostic? Christian or Buddhist? Jewish or Pagan? Wiccan? Or other? There are many possibilities. It is a small question, in a large survey, but from a practical standpoint, it will help ministers in search to better understand the theological makeup of the congregation.
From a broader standpoint, it is important to explore because it matters what we believe. As Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs once said, “some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged. Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.” “Some beliefs are like shadows…other beliefs are like sunshine…”
It is interesting to note that the word “believe,” which we often think means to give our rational assent to, once meant something more like “belove,” meaning “to give one’s heart to.”
As a religious person, I’ve always given my heart to some stories while rejecting others…although to say I’ve given my heart to them is not to say I believe their literal truth. As they say in Ireland, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” [Please note that this advice ought never to apply to testimony under oath!] In any case, I may not believe in the literal truth of these stories, but I have given my heart to them because they nurture something in me that I want to grow.
I’ve given my heart to the Christmas story, that is the story of a little baby born to a poor unwed mother…a baby who would one day grow up to subvert earthly tyranny through the transforming power of love.
I’ve given my heart to the Passover story, the unlikely story of an enslaved people, freed from slavery against all odds, who wander in the desert for 40 years recreating themselves and building a community
I’ve given my heart to the Buddhist story of Siddhartha, the young, privileged prince who, upon learning about the suffering of the world, gives up everything and makes it his lifework to end the suffering of others.
Does it matter if any of these things actually happened? No. I still give my heart to them.
Are there particular stories to which you have given your heart? Stories that inspire you to be a better person, to act even when you have lost faith or confidence in the future? Even when you despair?
I give my heart to Brigid – not to her stories alone, but to hers among others – because…
The stories of her hospitality and generosity inspire me to more open and generous in a time when the world seems to be falling more deeply under the influence of forces of greed and selfishness, and people seem to be growing increasingly afraid of one another and turning inward to take care of their own.
Her stories of her kindness to animals and to poor, outcast, and vulnerable humans inspire me to be more kind and to work more actively for justice for all in a time when the world seems to be falling more deeply under the influence of forces of unkindness, even cruelty and hatred…and in a time when the powerful seek to turn some of us against others, and to exploit the poor and vulnerable, and to punish rather than reconcile.
The stories of her feistiness, her independence, her subversion inspire me to challenge authority in a time when unjust authoritarianism seems to be on the rise, and democracy itself seems to be in danger.
And finally, the stories of Brigid’s associations with spring and birth, with creativity and new beginnings inspire me to keep hoping and dreaming of a more just and life-giving tomorrow in a time when the powers that be seem to be conspiring to make me despair and to feel powerless.
As Unitarian Universalists, we share a common religious identity, even though we may believe different things and “belove” different stories. I invite you, over the coming month, to begin to reflect on what stories you love, whose lives and stories most inspire you. I encourage you to explore your own theological identity more deeply.
And I very much look forward to hearing what you discover…
Amen and Blessed be.