by Kate Kennington Steer, all images by Kate Kennington Steer,
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.
It has been a very grey January outside my window, and although I resist turning on a light as soon as I wake up in the morning then leaving it on all day beside my bed, there have been some days where the daylight grey has rendered it impossible to read, even at midday, without the imposition of electricity. I hear my anger rage at the blankness of a filled-in sky driving me to consume earth’s precious resources. I catch sight of my disappointment when it feels like it has rained every day for six weeks and I have not seen the sun. I surprise myself with the resentment I feel when putting on a light, and its reminder of my dis-ease with shadows and penumbra inside and outside of myself; and of my reaching for easy hope, a quick fix, rushing to push past any grief, refusing to look at the hurts, declining the opportunity to ‘sit with’ the uncomfortable.
I note all this resistance in me as I continue to watch the light’s fall across the second half of my year’s exploration of the equinoxes, solstices, and the Celtic practices that surround the celebration of the ‘cross-quarter’ days marking the midpoints in between.
February 1st/2nd/3rd offers up multiple gifts to this season of grey: the Feast Day of St Brigid; Candlemas (the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Feast of the Holy Encounter); the Celtic festival of Imbolc; and lastly, the Saints day of Simeon and Anna. All four are intimately connected.
In 2015, I wrote a piece for the Godspace blog on Saint Brigid and her primary work as healer. She is known as the saint of birthing mothers, and her Feast traditionally marked the beginning of Spring. Named after Brig, the Celtic Goddess of Fire, she became the ‘bridge’ between Celtic and Christian communities in Ireland. Fire is also an important element of Candlemas, since as the name suggests, it was the day all the church candles were blessed. It is a Church feast day intimately connected with Mary, the mother of Jesus, as it celebrates her ritual cleansing and re-entry into the public life of the Jewish Temple, as well as the formal service of presentation of her baby to the priests and Temple congregation. There feels like so much richness to explore in this ‘co-incidence’ between the coming of light out of darkness and the celebration of the sacred feminine. As at so many other Celtic ritual occasions, fire marks Imbolc as the festival of Light. Lastly, light is central to the rituals enacted around the Feast Day of Simeon and Anna, the elder and the prophetess who witnessed the child Jesus’s entry into Temple life, who are known for recognising, articulating and proclaiming this Jesus as the bringer of Light in the Darkness, that fulfilment of the Old Testament’s promise of a Messiah (Luke 2:22-40).
Imbolc, meaning ‘in the belly’, brings an invitation to allow my body to be a vital guide for this ‘dark’ half of the Celtic year; it invites me to express both the dark and the light, the winter and the spring, through my body. The quality of light from November to February has a felt impact on my body, my mind and my spirit. My seeing is transfigured because of light’s blankness and flatness on grey days, and its low, acute, blinding angles on days where clear winter bright light appears. Yet discerning what ‘wisdom of the gut’ my body is trying to direct me towards, is something I find much harder to see. What in me needs ritual cleansing perhaps? What in me needs celebrating? What in me needs proclaiming?
All I know is that the very fallowness of winter is an invitation to rest in what I do not know. In this rest there is a paradoxical urgency which I must heed, before I make any habitual mad dash towards spring and all the symbols of hope offered by that season. For there is hope to be found in the stripped back, stark skeletons of winter, where what is spare and sparse is what is revealed to be beautiful, if I have eyes to see. In this season, there may be years where the seed has already been planted deep underground, and is already growing, unseen and unfelt, in the dark. Yet, this season also offers the possibility of jubilee, a year where the earth is not forced to be productive, where the year offers the possibility of restoration and restitution to the land, and all those who might glean from its dark riches.
This too is the eternal truth at the heart of the Feast of the Holy Encounter. Simeon the elder names the Christ-child as a light for revelation. Yet this light does not have the quickly graspable qualities of hope, or the glory of what Barbara Brown Taylor calls ‘solar Christianity’. Simeon prophesies that the Messiah is ‘a sign that will be opposed … so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed’ (Luke 2.34-5 NRSV) or as The Message translates this verse:
This child marks both the failure and
the recovery of many in Israel,
A figure misunderstood and contradicted—
the pain of a sword-thrust through you—
But the rejection will force honesty,
as God reveals who they really are.
I am stunned to realise that God is working with my default behaviour, my defensiveness, my stubborn rejections, my negative reaction to whatever God may be unfolding if it involves undergoing any kind of pain or discomfort. Further, I am staggered that it is not the fact of the Christ’s existence which is to be the revelation; he is the revealer, yes, but it is we who are to be the revelation: our innermost thoughts are, our True Selves are. And this unveiling will happen through misunderstandings, through contradictions, defensive rejections, and hurts: in other words the holy is hiding amidst all my shadow places… amongst all the tones of grey… amongst all the dark middle miles of my intestines, ‘in the belly’ is all the places I do not want to look.
Behold, grey might be a vehicle for revelation as much as any other colour. Grey can be a Christ-carrier in even its most unappealing state: it does not have to be pierced through or burned off or diluted, it is holy as it is, and it can bring ‘recovery’.
So the wisdom my gut offers me this year is that the beginning of February is a smorgasbord feast full of multiple offerings and opportunities for a holy encounter, for an #epiphanyoftheordinary to be released through the tiny flame of the candle before me. What waits to be revealed as holy is already redeemed, that fire is already lit within me, if I will only open my eyes, heart and gut to receive the vision and be wholed.
So let the holy encounter with the very belly of winter begin.