Thursday, December 20, 2018

Advent Reflections: Where Pagan and Christian Meet

Georgi Chimev.
There's always talk this time of year about whether Christians appropriated pagan holidays and made them their own. Many bristle at the very idea, yet the facts are what they are. Christians did, indeed, adapt pagan traditions and celebrations over the centuries, not because they wanted to follow pagan ways, but to make Christianity attractive to the peoples in the places where Christianity spread. Easter eggs? An obvious symbol of fertility. Christmas trees? A symbol of fertility and new life in the dead of winter. Even Marian devotion rose to the level it did in part because people in places with goddess worship wanted to continue to venerate a female image of the divine.

As we dig deeper, we find even more connections between pagan and Christian. Many years ago, my wife brought me back a Celtic cross from Ireland, made from Irish peat, that included fine details of pagan symbolism and imagery. Then there's Brigid's cross, quite possibly a reworking of the pagan sunwheel.

Brigid herself is a fascinating character, almost a perfect bridge between the Christian and pagan worlds. Legend holds that Brigid was a beloved Irish abbess who could work wonders and miracles with her strong faith and great compassion. So beloved was she that she became known as "Mary of the Gael." One story holds that she was "accidentally" made a bishop, when the priest consecrating her as a nun read the wrong prayers and later said the Holy Spirit compelled him to do so. And thus does Brigid, often depicted in imagery as holding the shepherd's crook of the bishop, give us a strong argument for the ordination of women.

However, before the Christians arrived, the Irish pagans already had a goddess they knew as Brigid. The beloved pagan deity was the goddess of poetry, healing, and smithcraft.

It is probably not a coincidence that Ireland has both a Celtic deity named Brigid and a Catholic saint of the same name. The centuries have blurred the distinction between the two so much that it's impossible to tell where legend ends and history begins. It's likely that the Irish loved their mother goddess Brigid so much that they refused to give her up when the Christians arrived, and so the goddess, in a sense, became the miracle-working Catholic saint. Both are associated with the illumination and cleansing of fire, and with sacred Irish wells. Moreover, St. Brigid's feast day falls on Feb. 1, which also happens to be Imbolc, the pagan festival that welcomes spring and is associated with the deity Brigid.

But why speak of Brigid at Christmas? Because of a delightful story called Brigid's Cloak. In the story, a druid comes to visit Brigid's family at her birth and presents her with a beautiful blue cloak, the color symbolic of royalty -- and, of course, the Virgin Mary. Many years pass, and Brigid, while tending her sheep, suddenly finds herself in another place and time, where a traveling man and his pregnant wife knock on the door and ask for a place to stay for the night. Whether Brigid was transported to ancient Bethlehem or she was having a dream or a vision isn't entirely clear. But either way, Mary of the Gael knew what she had to do. With no room at the inn, Brigid prepared a nearby stable so the expectant mother could give birth. As her reward, Brigid finds her old cloak, tattered by the years, looking bright and brand new, and now dotted with brilliant stars.

Brigid's simple act of service prompts us to reflect this Advent season on what we can do to help prepare the way for the coming of the Christ child. Whether it's helping someone in need or merely softening our hearts to let the love of God shine in, we can all do our part to keep the spirit of Christmas alive and well in our world.

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