Prelude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
In this time of continuing insecurity and social upheaval,
When most of us are unable to meet in person,
I invite you into this time of online worship.
For this short space of time,
Let us put our worldly cares aside,
Close our eyes and imagine ourselves
To be in our places of worship,
Surrounded by members of our beloved community,
And be together, if only virtually,
For this one hour.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning) words by Cliff Reed
For millennia beyond count,
in winter’s cold and night’s darkness,
people have gathered around fire,
feeling its warmth, seeing by its light,
forging community with food and work
and songs and stories.
In all the faith traditions of our kind,
fire has its meaning. And so we gather round
this candle’s flame, sharers all
in the human spirit that makes us one.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
each in their own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
in this difficult time of lockdown,
keeping in touch however we can,
and helping each other,
however we may.
We hold in our hearts
the brave and dedicated staff of the NHS,
and other key workers,
who are carrying on in impossible conditions,
and all those
whose lives have been touched,
in whatever way,
by painful events, in their lives,
and in the wider world,
of which we are all a part.
Reading Imbolc by Yvonne Aburrow, from Dowsing for Divinity, 30th January 2018
Imbolc is the time of year when I like to start new projects and endeavours… It’s the time when the first signs of spring appear (at least in my neck of the woods – your local climate may vary). The goddess most closely associated with Imbolc is Brighid, goddess of smithcraft, poetry, and healing.
Some people wait until the first snowdrops appear before they celebrate Imbolc. Snowdrops are the first flowers to appear after the long cold winter. Hence they, and the festival, represent the first stirrings of new life after the darkness, cold, and sleep of the winter.
The derivation of the word Imbolc is not clear. The most common etymology is that is comes from the Old Irish i mbolc, (“in the belly”), and refers to pregnant ewes. It may be derived from Old Irish imb-fholc, “to wash or cleanse oneself”. This would be consistent with the Latin meaning of February, the month of cleansing.
Traditional Irish folk ritual for Imbolc involves making a Brídeóg (a figure or doll of Brighid) and a bed for the doll. People also weave Brighid’s crosses, which were often hung over doors and windows in houses and stables to welcome Brighid and protect the buildings from fire and lightning. The crosses were generally left up until the next Imbolc.
Imbolc is the start of the cleansing tide (one of the four tides of the year), when the mulch and compost from last year’s growth is broken down to feed the new vegetation.
Two more symbols of Brighid are the white swan and the serpent. She is the goddess of the sacred flame of Kildare and the patron goddess of the Druids. The Dagda of the Tuatha Dé Danann is her father.
At this time, sheep are giving birth to lambs, and the trees start putting forth new growth, whose twigs are often red.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust. Amen
Reading Candlemas Day – the Christian Festival of Lights, from ProjectBritain.com
2nd February is Candlemas Day. This ancient festival marks the midpoint of winter, halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox.
Candlemas is a traditional Christian festival that commemorates the ritual purification of Mary forty days after the birth of her son Jesus. On this day, Christians remember the presentation of Jesus in the temple. Forty days after the birth of a Jewish boy, it was the custom to take him to the Temple… to be presented to God by his thankful parents.
In pre-Christian times, this day was known as the ‘Feast of Lights’ and celebrated the increased strength of the life-giving sun as winter gave way to spring.
It was the day of the year when all the candles, that were used in the church during the coming year, were brought into church and a blessing was said over them – so it was the Festival day (or Mass) of the Candles.
Candles were important in those days not only because there were no electric lights. Some people thought they gave protection against plague and illness and famine. For Christians, they were (and still are) a reminder of something even more important. Before Jesus came to earth, it was as if everyone was ‘in the dark’. People often felt lost and lonely. Afraid. As if they were on their own, with no-one to help them. Then came Jesus with his message that he is with his followers, always ready to help and comfort them. As if he is a guiding light to them in the darkness. Christians often talk of Jesus as ‘the light of the world’ – and candles are lit during church services to remind people of this.
Prayer ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad, from Fragments of Holiness
O God, give me light in my heart and light in my tongue
and light in my hearing and light in my sight
and light in my feeling and light in all my body
and light before me and light behind me.
Give me, I pray, light on my right hand
and light on my left
and light above me and light beneath me.
O Lord, increase light within me and
give me light and illuminate me.
Reading from Listening to the Light by Jim Pym
Another key concept when Friends talk about God is that of ‘The Inward Light’… This Light is ‘That of God’ within each person (and some would say within all created things). Or, put another way, ‘That of God’ and the Light are One. This Light is the Light of Christ and is equated with what St Paul called ‘The Mind of Christ’. Others see it as Life, which like Light is freely given to all creation. We know the Light as the Unconditional Love of God which, if we can accept it, we are able to radiate as light to the world around us.
The Light is seen in different ways. Paradoxically, we do not often talk about ‘seeing’ it. The way in which we are most aware of it is through what the Bible calls, ‘the still, small voice’…. In this intuitive whisper we are enabled to discover the will of God for us, and then we ‘see’ the Light as we listen to it guiding us…
Experience of the Light is something that does not come to us through scriptures. The mystics of all traditions have the ability to pass it on – or rather to awaken it in others by recognising that it is there in all creation… Sometimes the Light is personified, as with Christ as the Light of the World, or Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, in the Buddhist tradition. At other times it is impersonal, leading us to the point where all projections disappear.
Time of Stillness and Reflection by Terasa Cooley (adapted)
In this time of anticipated spring, let us allow ourselves to extend the anticipation – to value the time of budding before blooming, of seeding before sprouting.
This is a time of revelation: the revealing of that which is eternal, which we see every year, but still need to be reminded to see it in a new way.
There is also the revelation of that which is new. Every spring we encounter something never before seen. It is that very newness which embodies hope and potential for the wholeness which is yet to be.
Let us allow spring to unfold slowly that we may appreciate the true mystery of rebirth and renewal.
So may it be. Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address The Festivals of Imbolc and Candlemas
Next Tuesday, 2nd February, sees the celebration of two different festivals: the Pagan festival of Imbolc and the Christian festival of Candlemas. This morning I’d like to share some thoughts about the importance of light as a symbol of religious faith or commitment, and also as a symbol of enlightenment.
We saw in our first reading how Pagans celebrate the half-way point between the Winter solstice and the Spring equinox by the lighting of fires, the performance of rituals to harness the divine energy needed to get them through the rest of the Winter, and to ensure a steady supply of food until Harvest time. It is also in honour of Brighid, goddess of smithcraft, poetry, and healing. This is the festival of Imbolc.
Candlemas commemorates the purification of Mary, forty days after the birth of Jesus, and his presentation at the Temple, during which, according to the Gospel of Luke, Simeon held the babe in his arms “and praised God, saying, ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’”
According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “It was kept locally at Jerusalem from c.350 on 14th February and moved later to 2nd February. In 542, the Emperor Justinian ordered its observance at Constantinople as a thanksgiving for the cessation of plague, and thence it spread throughout the East…. Somewhat later, it began to be widely kept in the West.”
It came to be called Candlemas when the custom started to bring all the candles, that were used in the church during the coming year into church and say a blessing over them – the Festival day (or Mass) of the Candles.
Many religious traditions use light as a symbol of faith. Light is used as a symbol for different divine or reverenced figures – Jesus to Christians, Muhammad to Muslims, the Buddha to Buddhists – the list goes on. Many religions hold some sort of festival of light during the year – the Pagans have Imbolc, Christians have Candlemas (and light plays an important role in the season of Advent). Jews have Hanukkah and Hindus have Diwali. And the aim of all Buddhists is to become enlightened, to achieve nirvana.
Why is light such a potent symbol to so many people? I think it speaks to us at a very fundamental level – we need light to see and hence to comprehend our world. The light of the sun enables crops to grow, so that we and the animals can eat. It enables us to see what we are doing, and to see our neighbours and friends and interact with them. Our everyday language is full of the importance of light – a good idea is illuminating, and light can also stand for knowledge, truth and revelation. Conversely, Roget’s Thesaurus lists benighted and unenlightened, and being in the dark or blind as synonyms for ignorance.
The concept of inner light is also very important in religion. Take the Quakers for example. In their Advices and Queries, they advise Friends to “Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God” and “Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light… Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.”
I love the description of the Inward Light that Jim Pym gives in his book, Listening to the Light, which we saw in our third reading. The Quaker belief that ‘that of God’ within each person (or in all creation) is the Light, and that the Light and God are one and the same, resonates deeply for me. As I said in my service on the return of the Light last month, “The Quakers speak of “the Light within”, which is their term for the divine spark that is in each of us. This divine Light is deep within each of us, waiting to be noticed, and attended to. A divine spark resides deep within every single human being – old, young, male, female, non-binary, of whatever sexual orientation, class or race. A part of each of us that has never been wounded, never suffered grief. And I believe that it is our job, while we are here in this life, to recognise the divine spark, that of God, in others, and reach out to it in recognition and joy.”
The wonderful Celtic poet and theologian, John O’Donohue, has some beautiful words on the different qualities of light, and I’d like to share some of them with you:
“In the glare of neon times,
Let our eyes not be worn
By surfaces that shine
With hunger made attractive.
That our thoughts may be true light,
Finding their way into words
Which have the weight of shadow
To hold the layers of truth.
That we never place our trust
In minds claimed by empty light,
Where one-sided certainties
Are driven by false desire.
When we look into the heart,
May our eyes have the kindness
And reverence of candlelight…
When we are confined inside
The dark house of suffering
That moonlight might find a window.
When we become so false and lost
That the severe noon-light
Would cast our shadow clear.
When we love, that dawn-light
Would lighten our feet
Upon the waters.
As we grow old, that twilight
Would illuminate treasure
In the fields of memory.”
Such glorious images – “the kindness and reverence of candlelight”, that there is also empty light, “where one-sided certainties are driven by false desire”, and the ability of twilight to “illuminate treasure in the fields of memory.” I find his words illuminating, enlightening, such a gift to those who read them.
There is no doubt about it, light is a vital part of our lives, both literally and symbolically. Without the kind and fecund light of the sun, we and everything on our planet would die. And without the light of ideas and insights, from which we may learn and receive revelations, our inner selves would shrivel up and die.
As I see it, it should be the duty and quest of all human beings to seek for the light, to take it deep into our hearts, and to live our lives suffused by it, sharing it with all we come into contact with. The Inner Light of the Quakers is there in everyone, we just need to be aware of it. I will leave you with some words from Don Camillo and the Prodigal Son by Giovanni Guareschi, in which the Lord is speaking to Don Camillo:
“Once a hundred men were shut into an enormous dark room, each one of them with an unlit lamp. One of them managed to light his lamp, and so they could all see one another and get to know one another. As the rest lit their lamps, more and more of the objects around them came into view, until finally everything in the room stood out as beautiful and good. Now, follow me closely, Don Camillo. There were a hundred lamps, only one idea, yet it took the light of all the lamps to reveal the details of everything in the room. Every flame was the hundredth part of one great idea, one great light, the idea of the existence and majesty of the Creator… Today men wander mistrustfully about, each one in the light of his own lamp, with an area of melancholy darkness all around him, clinging to the slightest detail of whatever object he can illuminate by himself. And so I say that ideas do not exist, there is only one Idea, one Truth, with a hundred facets. Ideas are neither finite nor finished, because there is only this one and eternal Idea. But men must join their fellows again like those in the enormous room.”
May we all be such lights, one to another, and to the wider world, of which we are a part.
As light is a symbol of hope and renewal,
Of divine presence within each and every one of us,
May we celebrate the mid-point of winter with our hearts high,
Anticipating new life, new hope.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
May we share the love we feel,
May we look out for each other,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley