Celebrate this unlikely oracle, this ball of fat and fur, whom we so mysteriously endow with the power to predict spring. Let’s hear it for the improbable heroes who, frightened at their own shadows, nonetheless unwittingly work miracles.
Why shouldn’t we believe
this peculiar rodent holds power
over sun and seasons in his stubby paw?
Who says that God is all grandeur and glory?
Unnoticed in the earth, worms
are busily, brainlessly, tilling the soil.
Field mice, all unthinking, have scattered
seeds that will take root and grow.
Grape hyacinths, against all reason,
have been holding up green shoots beneath the snow.
How do you think spring arrives?
There is nothing quieter, nothing
more secret, miraculous, mundane.
Do you want to play your part
in bringing it to birth? Nothing simpler.
Find a spot not too far from the ground
Happy Groundhog Day! Today is also the Feast of the Presentation and Candlemas. Yesterday was both Imbolc and Brigid’s Day. February 1st and 2nd are thin places in the year’s cycle, rich with ancient energy. The Celtic Goddess Brigid comes together with a pesty rodent, Jesus’s presentation in the temple, and candle blessings at a party that celebrates lambing and other signs of Spring. Rock on!
Imbolc is one of the Celtic “cross-quarter days.” Cross-quarter days occur halfway between the sun’s solstices and equinoxes, and Imbolc is the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The ancient festival’s name probably comes from the Old Irish for “in the belly.” Imbolc celebrates lambing time, so it’s a party focused on gestation and birth, on literal and figurative new life.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, February 10th this year. The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word for Spring and shares a root with “lengthen.”
Many of us who grew up in a Christian tradition, if we celebrated Lent at all, focused on it as a time for giving something up. “What are you giving up for Lent?” was the question heard on the playground and in the lunchrooms of my childhood. If we were told why we gave something up for Lent, the reason was usually tied to our sinful nature. Lent was a time to try to rein in our sinfulness before Easter, to prove ourselves worthy of God’s gift of salvation in Jesus.
(This idea of human sin is an outgrowth of a troubling and pervasive idea about Jesus called “penal substitutionary atonement” or “sacrificial atonement” that’s become the primary way we’ve understood Jesus and God for the last few centuries. The short form of this idea is that God sent Jesus to die for my sins on the cross, and if I believe in Him I get to go to Heaven instead of Hell. Ugh. There are other valid and more helpful, healthy ways to understand God and Jesus.)
What if we approached Lent through the door of Imbolc and Groundhog Day?
What if we asked, “What’s in my belly?”
“What’s asking to be born?”
“How can I nurture whatever this is and prepare for its birth during the 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter?”
We don’t have to be churchy or penitential to find value in the ancient practices of a holy Lent. We have bodies and we live in them on an Earth that cycles, under a moon and stars that cycle. That means we naturally cycle – we have times of ebb and flow, times of rest and activity, times of retreat and going forth, times of dying and rising again.
We can reclaim the wisdom of earlier times that celebrated discernible lengthening of days, returning fecundity of Earth, softening and burgeoning forth of bodies and dreams.
We can ask ourselves what wants to be born, and then act to nurture emerging new life.
We can reclaim Lent.
Next week: a mini-retreat for going deeper into these questions.