Updated: Sep 1
Calling The Quarters excerpts from “Quarterdance” by Mary Bopp and Josh Pawelek
Spirit of the East, we invite your presence. Come air, come breath, come knowledge.
Spirit of the South, we invite your presence. Come fire, come heat, come turning.
Spirit of the West, we invite your presence. Come moisture, come water, come mystery.
Spirit of the North, we invite your presence. Come earth, come roots, come wisdom.
Introduction to Imbolc Rev. Josh Pawelek and Peggy Gagne
In early February we arrive at at a cross-quarter time—halfway between solstice and equinox. In the ancient Gaelic calendar, this is the time for the celebration of Imbolc or Oimelc—Imbolc meaning ‘in the belly,’ or ‘fire in the belly,’ pregnant; Oimelc referring to ewe’s milk,’ because the sheep are pregnant, ready to give birth. The milk is beginning to flow. Spring is coming.
Among pre-Christian Celtic peoples, as well as in many current-day pagan communities, the celebration of Imbolc—typically on February 2nd—is associated with Brigid or Bríd, the ancient Irish goddess: the exalted one, keeper of the flame, guardian of home and hearth, patron of bards and crafters, a poet, a healer, a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancient Irish tribe of gods.
In Catholicism February 1st is the feast day of St. Brigid, who was likely a fifth-century Irish nun, remembered for founding monasteries and churches. Catholics attribute a number of miracles to her. Her blood was said to have healing properties. She’s rumored to have turned water into beer. Many historians of religion argue that over time, Brigid the Catholic nun took on the characteristics of Brigid the pagan goddess. These arguments ring true to me. Because the people would not—perhaps could not—give up their goddess, the church Christianized her, elevated her, venerated her. Thus the more ancient patterns and meanings remain to this day, even if they reside in the shadows.
Imbolc is a cross quarter on the Wiccan calendar, which means it’s between a solstice and an equinox. It’s a time between. It comes after the dark and cold time of contemplation following Yule at the winter solstice, but well before the renewal of Ostara, which comes with the return of the light at the spring equinox. Can you imagine the sun peeking through a winter forest? That’s an Imbolc image. It’s a time of slow awakening, just like the groundhog sticking its head out of its hole. It’s a time of brushing away cobwebs and cleaning out what no longer serves us. In the Wiccan practice, Imbolc is a time to replace our old ritual candles with fresh ones. Some say Imbolc gives us the idea of spring cleaning. When my instructor told me Imbolc marks the beginning of spring on the Wiccan calendar, I told her she had obviously never lived in Maine, where there is usually still several feet of snow on the ground! Apparently the Celtic parts of the world had milder winters!
Meditation “Imbolc” By Erin Williams and Madeleine Breault
It is no longer Christmas, or Yule, or Hannukah- our family’s traditions have been packed away into boxes And stored in the basement until next year.
Many days are still gray and cold, but it isn’t really Winter anymore, it isn’t as dark, the days stretch longer, sunlight extends into the evening now. And yet, it is not Spring. This is a time of waiting. This is a turning time, an in-between time, A liminal time.
Imbolc means Fire in the Belly, What is yet to be born, What is still gestating, Ruminating- My fire is Making art, walking in the woods and swimming in the lake, My fire is sitting in the sun, or watching the stars
My fire is the projects I want to do and the stories I want to write. What projects are you imagining? What trips are you planning? What exciting spark is dancing around inside of you?
Who are you becoming?
Imbolc is Brigid, Goddess of healers and poets Goddess of the forge where tools were made in fire Goddess of the wells and waterways, where the earth provides us with nourishment- The ice is melting now, and the water trickles into the yawning earth- The seeds are waiting.
This is a time of pausing, checking in, This is a time of questioning Are you ready to go outside on this cold morning? To feel the sunlight And Know how much you are loved?
Or is that too much, Are you like the groundhog, seeing your shadow, needing more time- To ruminate, to sit at the hearth of yourself?
Sometimes things seem so uncertain, but I know that the seasons are circles, And I trust that endlessness.
I know that there is fire inside all of us, And that is our potential, that is how much we can love- So even during these in-between days I Celebrate the pause, I Trust the circle, I Remember that the sun is returning The ice is melting The earth is stirring
There is a purple crocus bravely Showing her face And I am returning her smile.
Reflection “Hope” by Peggy Gagne
The early Celtic version of Imbolc was not all that different from the festival in early medieval times, when Christianity was taking hold in Ireland. One of the goddesses the Celts worshipped at this festival was Brigid, (and you will see that spelled and hear it pronounced in a multitude of ways!). She was the daughter of Dagda (the chief Celtic deity) and one of the Tuatha De Dannan, the first inhabitants of Ireland. She is associated with many things, most significantly poetry and fertility, but also such activities as healing, smithing, arts and crafts, and tending to livestock. Making foods with a focus on milk, such as cheese or custard were and are still popular.
In celebration of her, it common to write poems and try out various crafts. One popular craft is the making of a Brigid’s Cross, now known as a St. Bridget’s Cross. (Hold up picture)
It is traditionally made out of plants called rushes, but these days can be made out of whatever material that works. It is hung above the entrances to dwellings to invoke the help of St Bridget in warding off disease.
Even in mild winters like the one this year, I find it can be easy to get a little depressed by the shorter days with less light. But as Imbolc approaches, I can feel not only the lengthening, but also the strengthening in the light, and it seems to give me a little strength too – to just hold on a little bit longer and we’ll be through this and spring will be here. I can almost taste it in the air – and occasionally hear the hopeful song of an early spring bird. I start to go out for more walks in search of the light and notice the early buds setting on some trees. I notice shoots of early spring plants just starting to break ground. I also find smudging the house lightens the feel of everything, since it’s too early to open the windows yet. And my thoughts start to turn to the projects I’ve had in the back of my mind, both for my home and myself. I start to look at day trips I might take with bus companies or night classes I might be interested in. I start to look forward to being around people again. New seeds of ideas to plant as the world becomes brighter and warmer.
If I had to sum up Imbolc in one word it would probably be HOPE. Hope that the cold and dark will continue to recede. Hope that the ideas and thoughts that I have come up with in these quieter days will take root and grow when I plant them at Ostara. And hope that I and those around me will continue to move towards the light and encourage others to do so as well.
Reflection Imbolc by Sudha Sevin
For me, celebrating the Celtic holiday of Imbolc is a very practical way to get through the post-holidays winter months. It’s an antidote to cabin fever.
Imbolc is just one of the Celtic seasonal holidays I mark. I have found that celebrating these special days, which are about halfway between the solstices and equinoxes, aligns me to the earth and the celestial energies that are emerging at the time. By marking them, I harmonize with those energies.
It is also a way to connect to cyclical time, which I experience as a spiral of present moments rather than clocks and calendars. Or you might think of it as “stepping out of time.” The Celts love to celebrate the liminal, whether it is faerie mounds, the dawn, or the threshold of your home.
How do you convey what Imbolc is? It’s vast. Its traditions have many different aspects and regional variations. I have to make choices about what to focus on. I could tell you Imbolc means this or that, but so much of it is subtle. Much of it is only known through experience. Still, I would like to try to share my experience of Imbolc with you.
So, this is our moment, right now, to mark Imbolc together. I invite you to close your eyes or gaze at a candle and let these words, which I wrote for you, wash over you. Perhaps from this, you’ll have your own experience of the magic of Imbolc.
Through the dark each of us has carried forward a tiny flame Each has found a way to nurture that seed of light, enduring black, cold passageways in faith that ‘round the next curve, or the next, a lit circle of entry shall show itself, Tell us, we’ve made it to the surface.
The powers of Light are waxing and the thin, hibernating bear shall reappear.
Remember that once bejeweled August harvest? And then the aging stalks and vines—we tugged and composted—returned to hushed earth? Now so close is renewal, pushing up from earth’s womb.
The birds await your return. In equipoise the trees hold the unsheathing of their leaves.
Come back to us, Lady!
Helpless lambs are born from your red blood and white milk a miracle
The sun’s light grows, a toddler yet to be sure, but soon strong and able to warm the bones of the dead.
So much promise, that new one.
Do we not live by dreams?
Candlelight reflections in the waters of the sacred well is the shine of our souls.
Reflection “Pagan at Heart” Rev. Josh Pawelek
I am pagan at heart. I wonder if you are too.
Some pagans have direct relationships with the goddesses and gods who were known to the ancients. Among Unitarian Universalist pagans, especially those who observe the eight sabbat rituals of the neo-pagan wheel of the year, including Imbolc, which we’re exploring this morning, many of those gods and goddesses are Celtic in origin, such as Brigid. Others are Germanic. Some are Norse. Occasionally UU pagans explore the Greek and Roman pantheons. Occasionally they look beyond ancient Europe.
I haven’t talked about this much from the pulpit, but one of the goals of my study leave this past summer was to read non-European, non-White science fiction and fantasy writers who weave earth-based deities into their story-telling—Tomi Adeyemi and Nnedi Okorafor, both Nigerian-American writers, often work with West African deities, the orishas. S.A. Chakraborty, a Catholic-born convert to Islam, tells tales of Middle Eastern Djinn in her Daevabad series. Rebecca Roanhorse, a mixed race, Pueblo and African American writer, draws on the religious world-views of Pre-Columbian American civilizations. There’s more. My point for this morning is that paganism comes in millions of variations—some highly structured, some entirely spontaneous—and it exists in every corner of the planet where human beings live and, especially, as they interact with their natural environment in spiritually significant ways.
Paganism comes from the Latin word paganus, which refers to peasants, rural people, rustic people. Over the millennia ‘Pagan’ has become a word of derision in the lexicon of larger, organized religions, like Christianity and Islam, religions that sought (and still sometimes seek) to convert the people from their traditional folk ways, folk practices, folk religions, often in the context of conquest and colonization. While many indigenous cultures across the planet have held onto their Earth-based spiritual practices throughout centuries of colonization, in recent decades, many non-indigenous people, especially in the West, have reclaimed Paganism as a positive, powerful, meaningful spiritual identity. Today Paganism points to something that was lost or stolen generations ago: a recognition of the sacredness of the Earth; an understanding of the interrelatedness of all life; and a desire to engage spiritually with nature.
For some pagans, at least some of the time, the deities are very real. In my experience Brigid speaks to many people across Northern Europe and North America, especially at Imbolc. Something about her seems so real and accessible. At other times, the deities become metaphors for certain natural life forces or human lifeways – love, healing, fertility, birth, death, planting, harvesting, etc. Brigid is associated with the home and the hearth, bards, crafters, poets, brewers, and healers. At other times the deities become associated with the elements—earth, air, fire, water. Brigid is the keeper of the flame.
I am Pagan at heart. I don’t have that immediate, direct relationship with a deity (though if I had to choose one, I would probably choose Brigid; or as a person of German – Scandinavian – Polish heritage, I might feel called to do research and find a deity who aligns with that heritage.) But I’ve never felt called in quite that way. When I say I am Pagan at heart, I mean I live with a constant, sometimes muted, sometimes blaring, sense that the natural world is magical, enchanted, breathing, listening, observing, and even at times, conscious, knowing. It’s not an intellectual construct. It’s not something for which I have any scientific evidence. It’s not something I can prove. It’s not exactly rational. It’s a sensation, a feeling, an intuition, a spiritual inclination. When we arrive at Imbolc, and I hear that translation “in the belly,” referring to pregnant sheep, or Oimelc, referring to ewe’s milk, I get a flash of recognition: of course, we are six weeks out from spring, and signs of spring are slowly revealing themselves. Nature follows its seasonal patterns, winter slowly recedes, spring slowly approaches. I feel it. The term Imbolc affirms the feeling.
I’ve preached previously about the connections between Imbolc and Groundhog Day, the descendent of that ancient, Northern European tradition of using animal divination at this cross-quarter time to discern when to plant the first seeds. I see all the campy media attention given to Chuckles here in Manchester, or Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania. It’s a bit corny. Fun for kids. But secretly my heart leaps out of my chest. Of course they know when spring is coming! It probably has nothing to do with whether they see their shadow, but of course they know. They are Earth creatures beholden ancient instincts; Earth creatures embedded in the patterns of Nature even if they live inside museums. Of course they know when spring is coming. And if they could talk to us, they’d probably ask us why we talked ourselves out of this knowledge. They would probably ask us why we have educated and industrialized and technologized ourselves out of this knowledge which actually still lives inside us and is our birthright as Earth creatures like them. They might even warn us: all life on the planet is now in peril precisely because you humans no longer know how to live in concert with the natural world.
Imbolc is one among many opportunities to get back in touch with that ancient knowledge, those ancient Earth creature instincts. Lighting fires of purification and cleansing? Blessing candles for the year’s rituals? Letting go of that which no longer works for us and is really just producing mental clutter? Getting ready for spring cleaning? It all seems to fit with this moment in the wheel of the year; it all seems to connect back to the way the Earth begins preparing itself for bursting forth in spring splendor. So I say yes to all of it. I am Pagan at Heart.
Even if you don’t use the word Pagan, I suspect, at least in some way, you are too.
Amen and blessed be.