I’m going to start posting a sequence of articles about the Sabbats that I wrote for another website. This entry has been lightly edited to bring it up to date. Please note that this entry in particular was meant to focus on inter-religious connections between Wicca and Christianity for an audience that was not very familiar with Wicca.
In my yoga classes, one of my teachers has been emphasizing the metaphor of resting at the end of a practice as a time of germination. In his words, we choose the seed by setting an intention, then we prepare the soil – the body – by doing our practice, and then we rest and reaffirm the intention, planting it within the body and spirit. After planting it, we have to give it time to germinate, to begin to grow. That waiting period can be difficult, and that’s the way I’m experiencing it this year.
Ostara, the name of the Wiccan celebration of the vernal equinox, comes from an old Anglo-Saxon goddess of the springtime or of the dawn named Eostre. The Anglo-Saxon monk Bede noted that during the process of Christianization in England, the people had transferred the goddess’ name to the new Christian celebration of Easter, which occurred at about the same time as the older spring festival.
The Christian celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred at this time of spring because it was immediately after Passover, the Jewish celebration of the exodus from Egypt. The date of Passover is based on the Hebrew lunisolar calendar, and as a result, Christians celebrate Easter on approximately the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox.
The equinox itself is the time when day and night are of equal length, in perfect balance. Days have been getting longer ever since the winter solstice, of course, but now they finally catch up with and overtake the nights. But the celebrations around this time of year aren’t very much about the sun and moon; they’re actually very earthy, with all the imagery of bunnies and eggs and things growing and bursting forth.
The celebrations are much more about agricultural concerns and very human needs and desires than about where the sun is. (Of course, this is all from a Northern Hemisphere perspective; in the Southern Hemisphere, this is the autumn equinox, celebrated in Wicca as the harvest festival of Mabon. With such earthy, personal matters, though, I’m going to write from my own perspective.)
Depending on your latitude and climate, Ostara might be the time of preparing the fields, doing the planting, or the time that the first shoots start to show the promise of later bounty. In Wicca’s mythological cycle, these processes are all celebrated at Ostara, along with the cheerfully reappropriated bunnies and eggs.
Wiccan mythology places a lot of emphasis on fertility, both literal and metaphorical, after all, and most Wiccans aren’t shy about the bunnies and eggs being blatant fertility symbols, nor about celebrating the feeling that like the ground and the plants and the animals, our bodies too are waking up after a long winter’s sleep. The larger metaphorical theme of life’s renewal makes the Jewish celebration of being freed from slavery and the Christian celebration of Jesus coming forth from the tomb a natural fit with the seasonal imagery of budding and germination and hatching.
Of course, everybody’s so excited about this – and it is exciting! – but in the flurry of jelly beans and chocolate bunnies and pastel eggs, even nature-oriented Wiccans often miss how much dramatic change is going on. Chicks have to break the shell of their eggs to hatch, and seeds that germinate don’t just break rocks – they have to split their own hull first.
We’re all happy about the increasing sunshine, but sometimes the accompanying changes are harder for us to accept. Sometimes it feels like we’re not just the chick that’s hatching – we’re the eggshell. Or, at least, the shell is a part of our life or our mindset being pecked at and cracked apart, and even if we want the result, the process isn’t easy and it isn’t comfortable.
This is how love works. Love transforms us from the inside out. It makes something inside you swell and move and never give up until it cracks open the old you and something new and full of life emerges.
It’s like when you’ve been having an awful, furious argument, and then the other person finally gets through to you that your comfort comes at the price of afflicting him. The new realization blossoms inside you and splits open your prejudice, your stereotyping, your assumptions, until they fall away like the chaff they are. Your understanding and your empathy and ultimately your love change you, from the inside out.
My teacher is right about the importance of the rest phase, though: usually this process of germination happens much more slowly. There’s another Christian celebration, a less well-known one, that’s actually tied directly to the vernal equinox: the Annunciation, which was a life-changing piece of news for Mary if ever there was one. The process of pregnancy isn’t just about birth: it lasts nine months, and likewise, although germination happens quickly, the growing wheat also takes more than that glorious moment of the hull splitting open to get all the way through to the harvest. But now, at Ostara, we celebrate because we know that process is starting again, and that’s what matters. We know, too, that change in our lives isn’t easy and is rarely instantaneous, but we know that it happens, and maybe we can feel it starting again right now.
The occurrence of the Annunciation in the middle of Lent is one of the few times that the Christian liturgical calendar really seems like a cycle. It’s a reminder that Easter and Christmas are deeply, intimately related. Wicca, on the other hand, characterizes sacred time as explicitly cyclical: the Sabbats make up the Wheel of the Year, after all, and it is constantly turning and constantly coming back to the same points.
We know that the days will become shorter than the nights again at Mabon, but we know that after the Mabon there is also another Ostara coming. That knowledge gives me hope that even when the transformation of love seems to have stalled halfway, when it seems like the shell is too thick to crack, that even then I can believe in the process continuing, and I can work for it and with it.
Ostara is a celebration of the victory of light over darkness, of life over death, of that which is moving and growing over that which covers it up and holds it down. Ostara challenges us to believe that love can make huge transformations and even new life possible. It isn’t easy to believe that. Sometimes it’s hard not to reinforce the shell and ignore the chick, and it’s hard to go down deep into yourself and plant the seeds and nurture them rather than staying on the surface and making more mud bricks to build the Pharaoh’s walls. And it’s even harder to do that for others.
As Mavis Staples sings, “Isolated and afraid / Open up, this is a raid. / I want to get it through to you: / You’re not alone.” We know that germination and hatching have destruction as the necessary accompaniment to change, even positive and amazing change like new growth and new life. We resist that change, often times, even when it comes from people who want to help us. And when we’re struggling through those changes ourselves, and trying to offer help to others, and we keep getting rebuffed, it’s easy to become jaded and give up.
But Ostara teaches me another response: planting seeds. My worship is a way of planting the seed of deity, and deity’s love, within myself. I want deity to grow within me, to transform me from the inside out. And then I want to go out into the world and be a seed myself, a seed of deity’s love that will transform the world from the inside out.
I want to be a chick making a change. Ostara teaches me that even when the shells of intolerance and cruelty and fear seem too tough for me to crack, deity is within me, and within the world, and that deity’s radical, transformative love is how I work in the world, pecking away at that shell, a little bit at a time. And the more that I celebrate deity in myself, and in everyone as I do at Ostara, the more I grow, the stronger I get, to peck a little bit more.
So for now, I’m planting seeds, in myself and in the world, that will grow, with each Ostara, even though there are winters in between. I believe in the chick, and I believe in the seed, and I believe in the love I’m trying to embody. Ostara reminds me that even when it’s scary and transformative, that love is the beginning of new life, of something beautiful and wonderful and worth every bit of effort.