Summer Sermon series based on: The Souls Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Spiritual Practices for Seeking the Sacred, by Christine Valters Paintner
In the turning of the seasons Christine invites us to connect our spiritual journey to seasonal cycles – in modern Christianity, we might say, to the liturgical year. In Celtic spirituality, it’s paying attention not only to the Summer & Winter Solstices, and Spring & Autumnal Equinoxes, but also to what’s called the Cross-Quarter Days – of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltain, and Lughnasa. Before you think that your pastor is going all pagan and new-age on you, it is good to remember that Christianity absorbed many pagan elements and adopted or co-opted pagan rituals and holidays as its Holy-days.
Christianity was influenced by the Roman festival of Saturnalia – an ancient pagan holiday that honored the Roman God Saturn. It took place between Dec 17th – 25th. It was a week of revelry and giving presents. Christianity co-opted the Saturnalia festival into its rituals, hoping to bring pagan masses in with it, except there was nothing intrinsically Christian about Saturnalia. To remedy this, Christian leaders named the concluding day, Dec. 25th, as Jesus’ birthday. The Philocalian calendar dated around 354 contains the earliest reference to the celebration of Christmas. Curiously, Puritans banned celebrating Christmas and made it illegal in MA from 1659 – 1681 because of its pagan history.
Many traditional elements we associate with Christmas predate Christianity. Celtic peoples began celebrating once the winter solstice arrived and rejoiced that the days were getting longer – spring and harvest was around the corner. Pagans worshiped trees in the forest, bringing them into their homes to decorate. Burning Yule logs was symbolic of the returning sun as the days began to get longer. The tradition of making Advent wreaths comes from ancient Nordic & Celtic sun-worshipping communities. In the dark, snowbound winter months, wheels were taken taken off wagons and brought inside for preservation. They were hung from the ceiling or on walls, and decorated with evergreen branches and candles as a symbol of the promise of the sun’s continued life, even during the dark season. People stayed close to home and waited with anticipation for the sun’s return. This symbol of promise and anticipation was eventually adopted by Christian communities, especially in northern and central Europe, for Advent, their season of hope for their God’s return.
Most historians and Biblical scholars, agree that Easter was originally a pagan festival. According to the New Unger’s Bible Dictionary: “The word Easter is of Saxon origin, Eastra, the goddess of spring. By the 8th century Anglo–Saxons had adopted the name to designate the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Others say Easter derives from the name of an ancient Chaldean goddess Astarte, who was known as the “Queen of Heaven.” Her Babylonian name was “Ishtar.” As the goddess of love and fertility, Ishtar’s symbols were eggs and rabbits! Worshipping Ishtar during an annual spring festival was intended to ask her blessing of fertility on the crops being planted at that time of year.
In Celtic tradition, there are Significant feast days called cross-quarter days which are midpoints aligned with equinoxes and solstices. To the Celts, time was circular rather than linear. Theologian & poet John O’Donohue writes: “The Celtic imagination loved the circle. It recognized how the rhythm of experience in nature and divinity followed a circular pattern.
Esther de Waal in her book “The Celtic Way of Prayer” writes: A people who farmed and knew the pattern of the seasons, who lived close to the sea and watched the ebbed flow of tides, who watched the daily cycle of the sun & the changing path of the moon, brought all of this into their prayer. The holding together how dark & light, cold & warmth, came naturally to a people whose whole livelihood showed death and rebirth, dying & new life, was a natural part of their existence.”
Each Celtic festival begins at dusk rather than dawn, a custom comparable with that of the Jewish Sabbath. There is wisdom to be gleaned and areas of our spiritual life to pay attention to and practices for each season. By attuning to rhythms of the earth, Celtic monks allowed nature to be a wisdom guide that could teach about life’s rise and fall.
The Celtic year begins, not on January 1st, and not the beginning of Advent, as our liturgical calendar does, but with the festival of Samhain on 31 October, when nature appears to be dying down. It is known as ‘Seed Fall’: the understanding that from death and darkness springs life and light.
As we go through each of these, I invite you to reflect about what moving through these seasons brings up for you. Joy, grief, memory, anticipation, letting go…
SAMHAIN: 11/1 is the midway point between autumn equinox and winter solstice, and is the beginning of the new year in Celtic tradition. Coincides with All Saints and All Souls Day. In Celtic tradition, remembering ancestors is an intuitive way of beginning anew. We can draw wisdom from those who traveled the journey before us. They believed it to be an especially Thin time where the veil grows more transparent, and wisdom of ancestors is closer to us. Reassured we are not alone – we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and communion of saints just across the veil.
Winter invites us to gather inside, listen for voices we may not hear at other times. Inner wisdom and voices of those who came before us. This season calls for grace of descent. We spend so much of our spiritual lives trying to ascend.
IMBOLC: midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox. 2/1-2 Celtic. Feasts of Imbolc, St. Brigid’s Day; Candlemas -feast of the presentation ofJesus in temple; and Groundhogs Day. Early beginning of spring. Ground begins to thaw – earth softens. Seeds begin to stir in the cold wet earth, Imbolc means in the belly -earth’s belly begins to awaken with new life stirring, seeds sprouting forth.
The call is to tend the first moments of awakening beneath fertile ground.
Remembering being in MA & Maine at the beginning of April where it was still winter – the lake still had a sheet of ice, the labyrinth still held snow. We witnessed the turning to spring that week. The ice and snow melted and the earth started to bring forth treasures.
BELTANE: bright fire. Midpoint between spring equinox and summer solstice. Beginning of the light half of the year. Temp is warmer. Flowering comes to fullness. Birds singing. Natures life force coming back. Sheep and cattle brought to summer pasture.
Fire festival of fertility. Abundance. Maypole with ribbons and streamers and dancing, ending with banquet. Dew of May thought to hold special properties – bathe in it. Catholics dedicate May to Mary.
LUGHNASA: time of harvest. 8/1 halfway between summer solstice and autumn equinox. Beginning of harvest and gathering in. Originally honored Lugh the Celtic sun god, an ally to the farmer in the struggle for food. Gather and reap what has been sown. First fruits. In the Hebrides in Scotland, it was celebrated 8/15 -feast of Assumption of Mary. Each family would take bread and walk sunrise around the festival fire and sing a song to Mary.
The earth’s turning can mirror our own spiritual journey and soul ripening.
What is it the season for? The author of Ecclesiastes tells us there is a proper time for everything, an organizing to life and the universe.
Seasonal wisdom invites us to consider what is coming to ripeness your life right now and how you might respond.
What does this season call forth from you? Where are you aware of still needing to ripen?
Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes: All the seasons and changes belong to one earth; all are part of one living process, one breathing planet, one beautiful organism. One life. The currents that cool one side of the globe warm the other. We are all part of one living being. One’s songs of courage are woven with the threads of another’s suffering. Another’s joy flows through our sorrow. When we pray for our own healing, without knowing it we seek the healing of the world. When our hearts go out to others who we think suffer more than we, both are strengthened. Our struggles and blessings, prayers and thanksgivings are not separate; they are one. We are all one being, one cell, one Life. We are all the prayer of one God, one Love. In your particular place today, in your weather, on your path, you are not alone. Those who suffer and who rejoice, who pray and who despair, who need life and who offer life, all are with you. All are in you. And we are all in God, whose love is our blessing, our unity and our life. Living or dying, we belong to this Love. This is the day God is creating. Give thanks and rejoice.
Poet David Whyte — Hidden Harvests – The inner seasons of Everyday Life
Human beings are very good at working hard, preparing, planning, sowing and tending, not so good at bringing in the harvest of all their labors; often refusing to have the patience that a true ripening calls for, or moving on to new initiatives before the one they have worked so hard for has had time to flower. There is also the difficulty that lies in the hidden, unspoken, almost invisible harvests connected with our shadows and our difficulties. Many of us have elements inside us that did not set right in our growing, were confined or nipped in the bud when they should have been coming into full blossom. Whether the harvest is easy to see but requires patience, attention or waiting to bring in, or whether it is hidden and difficult and requires a combination of courage and vulnerability to bring to fruition, bringing in the harvest is one of the great accomplishments of a human life.
Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the gentle night to you
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you
Deep peace of Christ the light of the world to you
Deep peace of Christ to you