Welcoming the Return of Light by Kenneth McIntosh, Southwest Conference Blog southwestconferenceblog.org United Church of Christ

Welcoming the Return of Light

by Kenneth McIntosh

All of the great spiritual traditions are connected to the patterns of the cosmos. The Spirit may be invisible, but meaning strives toward incarnation. For Christians, the ultimate incarnation is in the person of Christ, but the Word (Logos, Cosmic Christ) has always been incarnate in nature (John 1:3). So we should expect our experience of the Divine to connect with significant patterns of the Creation. In modernity, humankind strove to declare autonomy from nature (or dominance over it) by means of technology. Light, for example, can be manufactured—so that natural patterns of days shortening and lengthening no longer hold sway over work and sleep.

We do, however, still feel the tug of the seasons and the weather –even if we attempt to override and ignore those impulses. Thus, about this time of year, many of us start feeling a bit of “cabin fever” or “winter blues.” This is true even for those of us who live in the Southwestern United States, where we have amplitude of sunny days. We might not recognize the influence of the season, but it can affect us in subliminal feelings of stress or depression.

As the winter blues seem to drag on, it’s a good idea to celebrate the spiritual celebrations that come around the last day of January and first days of March. This is astronomically a “Cross Quarter” time, which comes at the midpoint between winter Solstice and the Vernal (Spring) equinox.

For the Hopi nation, located in northeastern Arizona, this is the celebration of Powamu, aka the Bean Planting Festival. The Kachinas (spirits of the natural realm) have been dormant in the longest days of winter, but now, in secret kiva ceremonies, the Kachina masks are readied and then the spirit dancers return to the villages, signaling the return of light and fecundity of the soil.

For the Celtic people who occupied most of Europe in the centuries before Christ, the beginning of February was Imbolc—the festival of spring-coming. Fires were lit and preparations made for planting. When Christianity came to rural Europe, Saint Brigid, a fifth-century Irish woman, replaced the veneration of the Goddess Brigid, associate with Imbolc. An eternal flame, first lit by the druids, continued to burn at Brigid’s monastery in Kildare.

There’s a story about Saint Brigid and her crown of lights that also connects with Christ’s nativity and with refugees crossing a border. The tale says that in a visionary experience Brigid traveled across time and space to the Holy Land, where she served the Holy family at Christ’s birth. Then she traveled with Mary, Joseph and Jesus to the Egyptian border for safety. However, Herod had warned soldiers to look out for the refugees and on the road leading to Egypt they ran across these violent men. Brigid quickly gathered up candles, wove them into a crown of sticks on her head, and spun and danced to the amusement of the soldiers, while the holy family skirted the outpost and sneaked safely into the land of their refuge, where Brigid later rejoined them.

To this day many Christian churches celebrate Candlemas on May 2nd. It is the celebration of Jesus coming to the Jerusalem temple and also a day for the blessing of all candles to be used in liturgical rites over the coming year.

As we celebrate the return of the light in the cosmos, and as we recall the ways that various spiritual traditions celebrate this time, we also remember the deeper light in the world. In the Common Lectionary, the Epistle text for January 31st is the famous love passage from 1 Corinthians 13 (which we have all heard at weddings). Indeed Christ’s presentation to the world, celebrated at Candlemas, is the manifestation of “the true light that lights all humans” being revealed (John 1:9). My friend and spiritual mentor George Breed says his vocation is “Spreading radiance around the town”—which he does by walking about and listening to people who need to unburden.

This coming Sunday and Monday, do a little something to celebrate Imbolc / Candlemas. Light candles in your home, sing around a warming fire, tell stories of the returning light. Most of all, pray that the Light of the World will use you at this time, coming into a situation where your neighbor’s life feels cold and grey, then radiating the light of God for them.