01 February 2012 a post by Ian Adams

lighting fires - Imbolc and Candlemas

Time to light a candle, time to light a fire.

‘Imbolc’ (pronounced ‘im-olk’) means ‘in the belly’ and as a Celtic early spring festival it celebrated the possibility of new life being formed in the earth, still unseen. Rituals would accompany this key turning point in the year, seeking food and shelter for the tough months ahead until the late summer harvest. One of those rituals was the lighting of fires - symbolizing warmth for the rest of winter, and signaling the coming light of spring.

group around fire

The Christian Church took this and merged it into its own celebration of other events full of promise. Now known as Candlemas, on this date the Church celebrates the Purification of Mary following the birth of Jesus, and the Presentation of her child into God’s care and service in the temple in Jerusalem. In a powerful scene described in the Gospel of Luke, two wise (and probably elderly) mystics called Simeon and Anna recognize in the holy child the coming of something extraordinary. Anna speaks of the child as bringing hope to the Holy City. Simeon holds Jesus in his arms and, sensing a wider significance, declares that this child is ‘a light for the whole world’.

In Christian practice these early spring moments of light and hope are now marked by the making and lighting of candles. And so the streams flow together. The lighting of fires in the Pagan tradition, the lighting of candles in the Christ-following tradition.

There’s something mysterious about fire. Whether in candle, wood-stove or bonfire, fire calls for our attention. Potentially dangerous but also life-enabling.  Fragile at times, unstoppable at others. All of human existence held in the flicker of flame. Perhaps that’s why we can find a fire so entrancing.

Whatever we face at this time, however deep our own winters may seem, the rituals of Imbolc and Candlemas remind us that there is still hope, and coming light.

Time to light a candle, time to light a fire.

text and photos by Ian Adams
January 2012

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