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February 2009

Tired, Schmired. No Whining at Imbolc!


Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.
--Romans 8:24-25

Tired, tired, tired. It's a word I hear a lot lately. If you live anywhere that has a true winter season, you know what I'm talking about. Those dark, cold months seem to pack the chronological punch of double time, so long and arduous are they.

It's not that we endure much hard physical labor during winter; that is an effort reserved for the warmer months. What makes winter seem to drag on and on forever is the opposite -- a lack of movement which makes us feel like we're not getting anywhere, not moving forward. While the temperate climes of other seasons call us out into nature for work and play, winter seems designed to keep us inside, stoking cabin fever as much as the fires we need to keep us warm.

Your relationship with winter might have a lot to do with your love of snow sports and how state-of-the-art your outerwear may be. Where I live, we've just been through one of the most bitterly cold, high precipitation winters we've had in about 15 years. How I feel about this season is often colored by how many days of sub-zero windchill I have to walk through, how quickly my city plows the side streets, what sort of technical malfunctions come with frozen switches and wires, and how long it takes before the deadbeat landlords in my neighborhood finally clear their ankle-turning sidewalks of impacted snow.

So, considering this winter's track record -- Yeah, I'm tired. Many a morning I have looked out my window and marveled at the breathtaking expanse of virgin snow and the otherworldly hush that comes with it, inches of crystalline water buffering the sound of traffic, footsteps, voices, planes; the sole sound the lonely scrape of a shovel in the distance. But then I'm out in it walking to the train, and like David Byrne I say to myself, "If this is paradise, I wish I had a snowblower!"

Winter is exhausting in some respects. But if we've done it right, we've used it to rest and to dream. And no matter what the thermometer says outside, hope isn't just right around the corner, it's here.

Lessons of Water at Imbolc

God hurls down hailstones like crumbs.
The waters are frozen at God's touch;
God sends out the word and it melts them;
at the breath of God's mouth, the waters flow.
--Psalm 147

On the Celtic Wheel of the Year, February 2 is actually the first day of Spring. Sure, it could be colder than a meat locker outside, and the ground could be so hard it might seem as though nothing green could ever burst forth from it. But take my word for it: February 2 marks the beginning of Spring.

Like Paul says in his letter to the Romans at the beginning of this post, you have to hope for what you cannot see, and wait with endurance. This hope, waiting and endurance is the work of Imbolc, also known as Candlemas. Perhaps if we cannot see that which we hope for, we can sense it, and in early February we usually get that blessing. For sure, the days are getting noticeably longer. If you're lucky, as we have been just this weekend, you get a thaw and watch the first movement of the year not driven by some merciless wind. There are no signs of life yet, and the ground is still covered with snow, but I've been watching with pleasure the receding crusts of dirty snow as it melts into puddles. I sent up an "Amen!" for every icicle (some with small child- or pet-skewering potential!) hanging from the eaves of the house that shrank in the sun, drop by drop, until finally breaking free and shattering into pieces on the ground below.

It is no coincidence that the element of water is most prominent at Candlemas rituals. At Imbolc, we purify ourselves for initiation into the Light of the Year, the new cycle of work and growth on our spiritual and mundane paths. It is a kind of baptism in this sense -- a washing away of the Dark and of the old year.


If you look at the role of water in the sacrament of baptism, you can see that it cleanses, which is largely the point, but deeper than that, it carries a special blessing. It is a vehicle for the Spirit, which follows it and falls onto the person receiving the sacrament, conferring the grace of purification and welcome. This is precisely the same role water plays at Imbolc, lit and made alive by the fire of the young Sun.

Getting Your Act Together for Imbolc

But water is also a splash in the face -- a wake up call. The time of dreaming in the dark is done, and it's time to get to work. The water that moves now, that cleanses us, also removes the sleep that carried us through the deep winter months. Last Imbolc I wrote about the work ethic example of the goddess Brigid and the traditional meaning of Imbolc -- from the Gaelic for "in milk," associated with lambs born at this time of year and all the work and preparedness that requires. The movement of water from frozen to flowing is, for many of us, a subtle but more understandable cue that the time has come to prepare the way to put some of our more realistic mid-winter dreams into action.

So too does the receding snow pull away the cozy covers from a sleeping earth, revealing it to the approaching and life-giving Sun, telling the ground to "wake up," so to speak, and begin the work of letting seeds soften for their millions of inevitable underground Spring explosions.

We often feel groggy when we're just waking up, but the energy of the year is beginning to grow. It is time to make the most of the few weeks we have left to prepare well for what we wish to bring forth in the New Year! Whether you have a circle of friends with whom to observe Imbolc, or just a meditative bath to mark your official entry into the new cycle, I hope you reflect upon the lessons of newly moving water and the role the warming Sun plays in this. A blessed Imbolc to all!

Above: Lugh in a Chicago alley; The Baptism of Christ by Paris Bordone.