The Old Religions

The 1st February, is the first day of spring, in ancient times it was the Festival of Imbolc or Imbolg. Imbolc is one of the four cross quarter days that marked the passing of time – pre Christianity. Set between the Solstices and Equinoxes the cross quarter days of Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain were subsumed into the Christian tradition as Brigid’s Day, May Day, Reek Sunday and the feast of All Souls.
          As mainstream Christianity becomes a less controlling influence over its membership these ancient festivals are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. More and more people are celebrating not just Brigid’s day but the other festivals as well. There is no record that describes how these festivals were celebrated; so people are creating their own ceremonies. They take inspiration from oral traditions that have survived two millennia of Christianisation and they use imagination to create a ritual that resonates with their soul.
          This is how religion should be. Religion is not about something that happened in history. Religion is not about upholding points of theology. Religion belongs in life here and now; it must be life enhancing and of the present.
          These ancient festivals are aligned to the unfolding seasons; they reflect what is happening around us in the world of nature. They are associated with the elements of earth, fire, air and water- the very stuff of life. What is happening in the world of nature affects the human soul.
          In mythology Brigid is known as the Goddess of Fire, she was patroness of among other things Blacksmiths and Childbirth. The festival of Imbolcg celebrates light and the coming of new life. Imbolg means in the stomach, put another way Imbolc is the festival of re-awakening. The words of this morning’s prayer sum this up.
          “The earth awakens to an urgent call to grow. In the hidden recesses of my wintered spirit I, hear your voice, calling me, wooing my deadness back to life”.
          It has been a long, difficult winter; the virus has denied us the pleasures and experiences that help to carry us through the darkness and cold of winter. We party at Christmas because in the darkest days we need the company of others.
          This year in the face of so much deprivation it is natural that our spirits feel withered; isolation from one another has withered us. We need to “woo our deadness back to life”. The good news is that Covid has not even paused the return of daylight, it has not stopped the days becoming warmer, spring is almost here. Spring will restore our spirits and the vaccine will make us giddy with life renewed. It is these perennial circles of life, nature and experiences that the Old Religions honour so very well.
          The festival of Beltaine marks the coming of summer. The time when cattle were brought to summer pastures. In some parts of Ireland the tradition was that two fires were lit and the cattle driven through the smoke from the fires.
          Lughnasa is still celebrated through climbing Croagh Patrick. Today people climb as a penance for sin. In ancient times Lughnasa was a festival of thanksgiving for the first crops.
          Samhain of course marked the end of the old year and it was the time to honour the ancestors.
          It is right that the rituals are reinvented; this ensures that they are relevant. Making changes to religious ritual is not showing disrespect to those rituals it is ensuring that they remain relevant.
          A tradition associated with Brigid is the making of St. Brigid’s Cross using rushes. The Christian myth of the St. Brigid Cross is that St. Brigid was explaining Christianity to a pagan. Brigid didn’t have a cross handy so she used rushes to create a version of a cross.
          I have a different interpretation of the cross. I believe that the St. Brigid’s Cross is a very ancient symbol - as was the swastika. I believe the cross can represent the human condition. The central square of the cross represents a person. The arms of the cross reach backwards to the past and forward to the future. The cross represents the individual at a point in time. The individual is influenced by the past and with the future waiting.
          The lower section represents that which roots and sustains us it also represents the dark hidden parts of the personality. When we are rooted we can reach upwards towards the things of the imagination and spirit.
          It is traditional that the crosses are made within a group. For me signifies the importance of community; how no man is an island. We influence and are influenced by the people around us; by the past by what roots us and the dark parts we all have and wish to hide. If we acknowledge that we all have our dark parts; this liberates us from having to pretend.
          Another tradition associated with St. Brigid’s day is making a pilgrimage to a sacred Well. We moderns understand the geology of the earth this knowledge diminishes our appreciation of the miracle of fresh water springing from within the earth. The source of the river Shannon is a fairly insignificant spring in county Cavan.
          Spring water has a clarity and freshness that is not found in river water or in rain water. We take this wonder for granted ancient peoples saw it as sacred. We still love to drink spring water. We buy “spring” water that comes bottled in plastic, refrigerated and transported over many miles. Ancient people went to the spring, rejoiced in the miracle and drank freely.
          A familiar feature beside these sacred wells is a rag tree. It is an almost unbroken tradition that pilgrims leave a piece of cloth tied to the branches of a nearby tree. Humans are thinking machines. Our minds become stuck in patterns of thoughts that are difficult to break. Leaving something tangible behind is a useful way to help reset the mind. The rag symbolises the burdens and unresolved issues we carry.
          Also the sight of other pieces of cloth on the tree is a reminder that everyone carries some burden.
          Gathering to make a Brigid’s cross, walking to a well, tying a piece of cloth to a tree these are ways to re awaken the soul. This is nut just praying to God for renewal. There is the intention for reawakening. Spring is coming it is time to wake up. The intention is reinforced by action – make a cross, go on pilgrimage, tie something to a tree. Then there is interaction with the world of nature. They have been used and found useful for thousands of years.
          In these days of Covid we can’t make a pilgrimage to a sacred well, we can’t gather to make a St. Brigid’s cross but we can go outside and notice the heralding of spring. It is particularly useful to notice snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils. These flowers grew from bulbs buried several inches under the soil. Growth began in total darkness at the coldest time of the year it has taken many months for the flowers to blossom. But blossoms will come. The certainty of flowers, of birdsong, of warmth and sunshine lifts the heart.
          Finally a reminder that as was suggested by Doireann Ní Bhriain, the 1st of February is a better time to make resolutions. If we make a resolution now we know that we are working with the flow of life nature itself will encourage us.

Rev.Bridget Spain                                      Dublin 31st January 2021
Minister Dublin Unitarian Church