This is the time of year for thinking about fertility and nurturing, about defining goals, and about preparing to meet the year ahead. With the return of the light, the earth awakens. In the secular U.S. and Canada we mark the coming of spring today by making a groundhog shuffle out into the daylight to see his shadow. If he does, tradition goes, we have six more weeks of winter; if he does not, spring is just around the corner. For neo-pagans today is the festival of Imbolc, half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox; for the Irish, it is St. Brigid’s Day; for Christians, Candlemas and the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple. Many of these celebrations involve lighting candles, torches, or bonfires, and they also involve purification in order to gain insight.
This is a day associated with women who look out for the humble, and are themselves humble. The ancient Celtic fire goddess Brigid is said to walk the earth. Brigid looks out for the poor and marginalized, especially poor women. St. Brigid is the patron saint of babies, children of unmarried parents, women who suffer domestic abuse, midwives, fugitives, nuns, poets, scholars, dairy and poultry workers, sailors and travelers, blacksmiths and cattlemen. On this day, forty days after giving birth, the Virgin Mary is supposed to have undergone the ritual purification required of Jewish women after the birth of a son, bringing an offering of a lamb and turtledoves to the temple, and presenting the child Jesus, as required by Jewish law. Some Christian scholars see Mary’s acquiescence to purification as one of the many examples of her humility, since technically the miraculous nature of his virgin conception and birth might place her outside this requirement. Mary didn’t have to go to the temple, but she went. We don’t know why, except that she was young, and faithful to custom and law. Maybe she didn’t think it was her job to announce her exceptionalism. Maybe she was happy to celebrate a happy birth by giving thanks in the traditional way.
Still, she went, and Simeon and his wife were there. Simeon, according to Luke, knew that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah, and when he saw Jesus in the temple, he took him in his arms and thanked God. Mary’s humility allows Simeon and Anna to find that which they had been seeking, and to recognize when they had found it, despite the fact that Mary and Joseph were so poor they were exempt from the requirement of a sacrificial lamb.
How does humility help us find what we seek, and know when we have found it? Humility is one of those virtues that aptly illustrates the classical ideal of virtue as a mean: too little humility can lead to an arrogant, closed mind; too much humility can mean one lacks the self-esteem to value insight. Certainly our competitive, individualistic culture doesn’t value humility, except in those we want kept out of the competition. There is good reason to be suspicious of humility; women have always been encouraged to be humble, as have the poor. In the U.S., humility was expected of Black Americans funneled into service jobs under slavery and Jim Crow, and fame had to be kept secret from one’s employer, as in the case of Zora Neale Hurston trying to hang on to her secretary job after becoming a successful author. Part of the reason we often define self-assertion today as the opposite of humility has to do with the long tradition of those with great social, economic, and political power keeping people in their place by encouraging them to ask for nothing.
On the other hand, those seeking to make profound and lasting changes in their lives are rightly encouraged to be humble. Many recovery programs stress the necessity of acknowledging a higher power, acknowledging, too, the damaging effects of grandiosity. Political candidates who have gotten where they are because of extraordinary self-marketing are encouraged as elections draw near to be humble, to try to understand the plight of the little guy. In this season, as we see the return of the sun and look within ourselves for new ways to make life better, it seems especially valuable to consider the ancient connections this holiday insists on, between a humility that purifies one to be open to the world, and the profound insight we might have if we allow ourselves to risk it. When the sun sets tonight, put on all the lights in your house, light some candles, and celebrate this ancient holiday, rejoicing in the light, in the new year, and in the coming spring.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.