Bringing More Gifts to the Holy Child
My nativity set is based on a certain Christmas tradition. With realistic-looking figures about 26 cm when standing, they represent Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus in his cradle and three ‘kings’ dressed in magnificent robes. No shepherds or sheep and cows.
That is, it’s the scene as depicted in the Gospel of Matthew – well actually a legend that has evolved from that story. Matthew chapter 2 speaks about wise men from the east who were journeying to find the Saoshyant or savior whose star they had seen in the heavens. These men were Zoroastrian magi deeply versed in astrological star lore, and the sign they perceived told them that the birth of the prophesied one was about to take place. It would be in Bethlehem, in Judea.
In time they became three wise men due to the three gifts they brought of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Centuries later in some Christian traditions they changed to three kings, who geographically in relation to Bethlehem came from three significant kingdoms and three directions. Our nativity shows Balthazar from Ethiopia in the south, dark skinned with distinctly African features, black bearded Melchior from Persia in the north, and a weary old Caspar from India far away to the east.
The legend has an inner truth because it speaks of the universality of Jesus Christ beyond religions and spiritualities in different parts of the world. But it has developed in a lopsided way. If we look at the world symbolically as a quaternity there’s a gap. What of the west? And more, the kings who come to pay tribute are male. Can there be a feminine tradition of offering to the Christ child as well?
There can be. There is, and it’s held in another legend that includes the authority of the feminine and of the west. I call on Brigid, beloved saint of Ireland.
Who was she?
Saint Brigid, also called Bride, was born around 450 and lived to 523. Tales of her miraculous deeds are numerous, and many legends surround her life. As a child she is said to have made this extraordinary prophesy:
My garment shall be laid upon the Lord of the World … the king of the elements himself shall lean upon my bosom. And I shall give him peace.
She became known as the foster mother of Jesus Christ, assisting the Virgin Mary with the holy babe. In Celtic society foster parents played vital and important roles – we have a faint echo today with the naming of godparents at infant baptisms. Then it was far from symbolic.
The legend tells how Brigid was led by a white dove through a grove of rowan trees, the Celtic tree of life, to a place that was none other than the Holy Land and to Bethlehem where she undertook to act as an aid woman to Mary the mother of Jesus. She placed three drops of water on the infant’s brow to unite him with the earth. She calmed him with song when he became restless. Other legends tell how she stayed with the holy family and helped them in various difficulties.
The magi brought the gifts of gold for Christ’s heavenly kingship, frankincense for the anointing as divine priest, and myrrh for the sacred sacrifice. The gift Brigid brought was her blue mantle and she gently wrapped it about the child. Blue is the colour of heaven, of the wide ocean and of divine feminine wisdom. For this she was named Bride of the Mantle.
Legends overcome the limitation of time, and Saint Brigid did just that when she time-slipped back to the Holy Land of the first century. It was possible because she bore the name, aura, and lineage of the most important and loved Irish goddess Brigid.
The feminine spirit was integral to Celtic life. Brigid whose name derives from proto-Celtic briganti ‘exalted one’ (as do our ‘bright’ and ‘bride’) was goddess of the ‘in-between’ realms, the threshold between spirit and earth and at changes of seasons. Radiant Brigid guided becoming and being. She upheld the order of nature and worked equally in fire, water, air and earth. The fruits of the earth were offered at her feast. Wells and rivers were sacred to her, as was fire. You can still visit her sacred well and the Flame of Ireland at Kildare. Now dedicated to Saint Brigid and served by nuns, there is a direct link to the goddess and her priestesses. The feast of both goddess and saint is Imbolc on February 1, when the sun promises to return, the ground begins to thaw, seeds are planted and in wombs new life quickens.
Brigid was an all-encompassing goddess, relating both to the cosmos and personally to every human. She cherished the home and the rearing of both children and animals. She taught the healing wisdom of nature and the keening chants needed to guide a soul in death. She also guided building and the metalworking crafts so important to the Celts and inspired song and poetry. Irish poets today still call on Brigid’s inspiration.
Saint Brigid carried forward the goddess’s functions. Associated with the rhythms of nature, her flower is the anemone or windflower that opens its nodding head in the early spring. She established monasteries for men and women and is patron saint of childbirth, midwives; infants, including those born out of wedlock; blacksmiths; metalworkers; cattle; dairymaids; poultry raisers; fugitives; mariners; travellers; scholars; artists and poets.
So the goddess Brigid moved from the mythological realms into historical time as powerful and saintly Brigid, and the legend that took her to Bethlehem lives on in the threshold space. I like to see this as affirming the rich wellspring of feminine wisdom that will unite with masculine vision at the adoration of the holy child and indeed which is always active in the mystery of Christ.
During the twelve holy days and nights of Christmas it’s an opportunity to include in our contemplation the way legends can be drawn together to enlarge our understanding of the nature of spirit, as we travel our own path to Bethlehem. There we can bring our unique gifts to the holy child and in return we will be nourished, for Bethlehem means ‘house of bread.’ Then if we allow it, the child of promise can grow and mature in our being, for this child is none other than the Christ in us, our spiritual self.