Although popular culture has largely viewed witchcraft as something that is either associated with ‘black magic’ or playfully celebrated at Halloween, Wicca is a religion influenced by pre-Christian beliefs and practices. Wiccan spirituality that is manifested in nature and emphasizes ritual observance of seasonal and life cycles will be our focal point this Sunday.
The complete sermon can be read below:
Some of you may know that the annual celebration of Earth Day will be celebrated this coming Friday on April 22nd. Most of us probably know that the Earth Day movement, started in the 1970′s, has since seen millions of people taking part in planting trees, cleaning up neighborhoods, and advocating for more progressive environmental legislation.
What you might not know is that this Earth Day will be one for the history books. On Friday more than 100 heads of state and other high-level government officials will sign the the global-scale Paris Climate Agreement at the United Nations office in NYC. The UN expects signatures to exceed the number of first-day signatures of any other international agreement, demonstrating overwhelming political support for global climate action.
It’s fitting that such milestone events happen on this day when the world turns green, not with envy, but in recognition and perhaps sometimes even reverence for Mother Earth.
It is because of Earth Day that April was chosen as the month we would focus on our sixth Source –
Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
While millions of people are particularly aware and appreciative of Earth during this month and specifically on Earth Day, there are those among us who live these observances 12 months and 365 days a year, and make the celebration of Earth and nature central to their way of finding sacredness and divinity.
One such group is people of the Wicca tradition, which was recognized by a 1986 Court of Appeals as a legitimate religion. Today we will explore this tradition, and our focus will be on witches.
As a point of clarity, witches today are sometimes mistakenly thought to be exclusively Wiccan, a faith tradition begun by Gerald Gardner in the 1950's. However, not all witches are Wiccan... many do not feel bound to any religion at all. However, today’s message will inter-weave both, as is typically the case.
Perceptions about witches in our culture generally fall under one of these categories – ugly wart-nosed hags with pointy hats who fly on broomsticks, stir potions in black cauldrons and steal little dogs named Toto (these are typically emulated at Halloween), or mysterious modern-day women who are involved in dark, occult-type rituals (these we typically fear and misunderstand).
It’s this last category that we will be exploring today.
The word ‘witch’ originates from the Old English term ‘wicca’, meaning magic user. To clarify, let us define what we mean by witch.
A "witch" is a person who practices witchcraft... a combination of ancient beliefs of the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods and goddesses, as well as collections around the world of old practices - the religion of the Earth is the most ancient of all, and where all future religions would be born from.
Being around for so long, one might assume that the world has had plenty of time to understand and appreciate its spiritual dept.
Not so. For example, negative references to witches and sorcery in Judeo-Christian scripture reflects the notion of the evilness of their nature has been around for centuries.
Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, professor of Jewish History, maintains that witchcraft is traceable in part to a commonly held art of men and women in early Jewish history, beginning approximately 2500 years ago.
What constituted witchcraft was whatever behavior that appeared to fall outside the commonly-held laws of nature.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, scriptural condemnation of these ‘unnatural’ behaviours was directed at witchcraft by women not by men.
The supernatural acts performed by men were regarded as miracles, while those performed by women were called sorcery.
Tales of sorcery only fueled the belief that witches were evil. I share with you one such story, a German story entitled “Frau Trude”:
Once upon a time there was a small girl who was strong willed and forward, and whenever her parents said anything to her, she disobeyed them. How could anything go well with her?
One day she said to her parents: "I have heard so much about Frau Trude. Someday I want to go to her place. People say such amazing things are seen there, and such strange things happen there, that I have become very curious.”
Her parents strictly forbade her, saying: "Frau Trude is a wicked woman who commits godless acts. If you go there, you will no longer be our child.”
But the girl paid no attention to her parents and went to Frau Trude's place anyway.
When she arrived there, Frau Trude asked: "Why are you so pale?"
"Oh," she answered, trembling all over, "I saw something that frightened me."
"What did you see?"
"I saw a black man on your steps."
"That was a charcoal burner."
"Then I saw a green man."
"That was a huntsman."
"Then I saw a blood-red man."
"That was a butcher."
"Oh, Frau Trude, it frightened me when I looked through your window and could not see you, but instead saw the devil with a head of fire."
"Aha!" she said. "So you saw the witch properly outfitted. I have been waiting for you and wanting you for a long time. Light the way for me now!"
With that she turned to girl into a block of wood and threw it into the fire. When it was thoroughly aglow she sat down next to it, and warmed herself by it, saying: "It gives such a bright light!"
Obviously such a representation of a witch supported the perception that witches weren’t people who revered nature, but instead violated the laws of God and nature.
Putting on trial those suspected of witchcraft was a convenient mechanism for exiling or exterminating women who possessed knowledge, or who successfully addressed ailments that ‘proper’ doctors couldn’t.
Thus, in the 13th to 18th centuries 50,000 – 100,000 women were killed because of some perceived association with witchcraft.
The condemnation of these women underscores that reverence for women as having equal value to men and perhaps, a threat to the biblical story of creation in which woman is born of man, while all these pagan creation stories (and real life birth) reflect woman giving life.
As Christianity has patriarchal leanings, Wicca’s core is mostly matriarchal. Instead of the “Our Father” prayer, see if these words of the Wiccan Great Mother sound strikingly familiar…
Whenever you have need of anything… you shall assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of Me….You shall be free from slavery…for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and Mine also is the joy on earth. For My law is love unto all beings....Mine is the cup of wine of life…I give knowledge of the spirit eternal, and beyond death I give peace and freedom and reunion with those that have gone before. My love is poured upon the earth.
This prayer could easily have been derived from several bible verses.
Society, however, has long made followers of the Wicca tradition to be dark, bizarre, to be feared and avoided.
It’s fascinating how we become so acculturated to things in our culture that we lose sight of how bizarre they sound when we take a step back to consider them.
For example, in the Christian tradition (and more specifically, in the Roman Catholic tradition) every Sunday the faithful consume a deceased person’s flesh and drink his blood.
Additionally, the practice of laying on the hands to bring forth instantaneous healing has a magical component. If such practices were Wiccan practice they would likely be regarded suspiciously at best.
I don’t mean any disrespect to these beliefs and rituals. My point is that we are quick to vilify traditions and rituals that many deem to be ‘on the dark side’ while we esteem as holy rituals and beliefs that could as easily be deemed ‘off the beaten path.’
Like the Wicca tradition, Unitarian Universalism has been an ‘off the beaten path’ religion in many cultures for as long as it has existed, and shares many things in common with Wicca.
I wonder if you’ll agree that UU could have as easily been the tradition described in the following example of a Wiccan myth:
Myth: Wiccans have no morals; they believe ‘anything goes’.
Fact: Wicca is a religion of personal responsibility. We are expected to consider the consequences of actions, and hold ourselves accountable choices. We believe in avoiding unnecessary harm—to others and ourselves.
Unlike Christianity, we are a religion of moral relativism. Looking throughout history, we see morality shifts from culture to culture, from era to era. However, moral relativism is not synonymous with amoral.
We believe in using common sense, listening to your conscience, and following cultural mores and agreed-upon social guidelines, such as following laws and respecting the rights of others. Wicca puts the burden for everything we do squarely upon our own shoulders—we have no savior, no free passes. We believe that natural consequences are built into the universe via the law of cause-and-effect.
Unlike a large portion of the broader society, UUs typically do not marginalize members of the Wiccan tradition. For us it’s easy to remain open to such an earth-based tradition, especially since it is at the core of one of our Sources.
I wonder, though, if the mainstream marginalization of the Wiccan faithful holds a message for us. I wonder if we can use this unfortunate societal trend of ignorance being manifested through hate and fear as a reminder of our human tendency to make assessments prematurely, especially when something isn’t in keeping with our ways of seeing or doing things.
I also wonder if we UUs could take pause to ever more deeply embrace the sacredness of our Earth, Mother as she is to us in nature.
Based on inspiration from this ancient tradition of faith, perhaps we could consider incorporating nature more fully into our worship, both communally and individually.
As I share this account of a Wiccan worship experience, I invite you to place yourself in the midst of it:
The moon is full. We meet on a hilltop that looks out over the bay. Below us lights spread out like a field of jewels, and faraway skyscrapers pierce the swirling fog like the spires of fairytale spires. The night is enchanted.
Our candles have been blown out, and our makeshift alter cannot stand up under the face of the wind, as it sings through the branches of tall eucalyptus. We hold up our arms and let it hurl against our faces. We are exhilarated, hair and eyes streaming. The tools are unimportant to us; we have all we need to make magic: our bodies, our breath, our voices, each other.
As earth centered traditions are the most ancient of all faith traditions, so then are we descendants of this religion that allows Earth to inspire us through the direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, indeed moving us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.
May our earth-based heritage truly be a Source of renewal for our spirits
So may it be.
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