I was invited to give a Dharma Talk at a Buddhist temple service in Hawai’i recently. Last time these folks invited me to speak, I explained my Christian feminist theory of Christ the Cosmic Vagina, so I was glad they invited me back! But that was the classroom – for temple service, I decided to talk about Candlemas.
This Buddhist community chants a beautiful prayer together every week:
“I am a link in Amida Buddha’s Golden Chain of Love that stretches around the world. I must keep my link bright and strong. I will try to be kind and gentle to every living thing and protect all who are weaker than myself.
I will try to think pure and beautiful thoughts, to say pure and beautiful words, and to do pure and beautiful deeds, knowing that on what I do now depends not only my happiness or unhappiness, but also that of others.
May every link in Amida’s Golden Chain of Love be bright and strong, and may we all attain perfect peace.”
What a perfect prayer for Candlemas! So, I invited them to sail across the sea with me, away from the bright, hot tropics to a darker, colder part of the world, the land of my ancestors, Cornwall, the Celtic nation on the southwest tip of Britain.
In my British Celtic Christian tradition, Feb 2 is the holiday – holy day- of Candlemas, which comes 40 days after Christmas. Historically, Candlemas marked the end of the Christmas feasting season for those who could afford feasting, and the resting season for everyone else – such as farmers and shepherds. Baby lambs are incredibly adorable, frolicking and frisking in the fields; but, lambing season is hard work.
It was a happy, sad time – a last hurrah of merriment before life got grim and grueling again. The festivities of Christmastide ended, and the season of Lent drew near— a time of fasting and serious meditation on how to live by Jesus’ principles of justice and equality, to stand against oppressive powers of wealth or politics as Jesus did. That’s why wealthy, powerful leaders executed him.
But Candlemas is also the beginning of spring, when the cold, dark months turn a corner, and brighter, warmer days appear. Some sources say that all the candles for the coming year were blessed and distributed at a worship service bright with candlelight. Candles symbolize Christmas messages of the light of hope, healing, and justice that can come even in times of terrible fear, grief, and oppression— as the Jewish community was experiencing at the time of Jesus birth. For people living in cold, dark places, candles also offer a symbol of the light and warmth of the sun, which we welcome back and ask to bless our crops with enough food, just as Jesus symbolizes the bread of life and the Light of the world.
Second, Candles symbolize purification; they were thought to protect against disease or plague. In addition to the purification of the sacred temple or church, they symbolize the purification of Mary and Jesus, who needed to purify their bodies after childbirth. In their Jewish tradition, whenever death and life came close to each other, via loss of life, or even the loss of the potential for life — it required a time of purification, to honor the incredible reverence and sacredness of life.
Of course, sexism and patriarchy have often distorted the idea of purification into something violent: double standards for females, and repression of any sexuality that patriarchy finds threatening. Modern “Purity Culture” trains adherents to think of the female body as inherently bad (well done, Nadia Bolz-Weber, for melting purity rings and turning them into a vagina statue!). But purity doesn’t have to be violent or toxic. Purity can be trying to “think pure and beautiful thoughts, say pure and beautiful words, and do pure and beautiful deeds,” as the Buddhist prayer exhorts. In healthy communities, purity can be beautiful. In my Methodist tradition, John Wesley saw purity as finding our true self, our loving, divine self, in balance and harmony within the web of our relationships with people and all Earth.
Third, in Cornwall, Candlemas means the first spring flowers bloom: pure white snowdrops, called the “Purification Flower” and the “Fair Maid of February.” Golden daffodils also appear. The spring flowers look like little stars come to lift our hearts and give us courage that our long night is ending, and dawn is breaking. They are Earth’s candles, offering a sweet, purifying incense of life, the potential for new life, life abundant! They fell and are reborn, in an eternal cycle, symbols of divine, sacred power.
This Candlemas, as I think about the Buddhist candles purifying altars and temples, the Christian candles symbolizing life and purity, and the sacred power of life and death close together, the Divine Truth that flows through my soul like a song is this: the Source of purification is the Divine Womb, the Source of all Life; the bridge it weaves connecting all Being, all Life into an eternal chain of Love is the Sacred Birth Canal. Yes, again, it is Christ, the Cosmic Vagina. The candle flames, so beautifully shaped like dancing vaginas, represent the purification that flows through every process of birth and rebirth.
Vaginas are not, as patriarchy claims, a cause of pollution. FTSS. Vaginas are the Source of Purification, the vaginal flames of every candle signifying the Holy Spirit of Becoming, who guides bodies and souls into the world and guides us out again to be reborn as beloved ancestors. And just as the word “Christian” means “Little Christ,” the vaginas of all females are sources of purification for our polluted world, a world poisoned by a patriarchal sickness that murders hundreds of millions of female fetuses and infants simply for the crime of having a vagina. The vast majority of trafficked humans have vaginas, and one third of them are children. They are trafficked because they have vaginas. The vast majority of sexual violence is committed against people with vaginas, and is committed by people without vaginas. And whenever I name these demographic patterns on Facebook using words such as “women” or “men,” I get put in Facebook jail for “hate speech.”
Where are those wounded, raped, murdered, silenced, sacred, holy vaginas now? They are every candle flame. Truly, truly Vagina Christ tells you, in order to heal this plague, we must see and name those candle flames for what they are, and accept our collective need for purification, in which the chaff of patriarchy is burned away completely. We urgently need new Theologies of Vagina Liberation, with the limitless potential of sacred symbols to heal our world in powerful, radical ways. I’ve gotten started, but there’s much to be done. The Sacred Vagina can heal us, can rebirth us into a culture of pure and beautiful thoughts, words, and deeds. Sink your roots deep, and raise your candles high. Be a new song of Spring. Be the purification our world so desperately needs.
Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.