This is the season for celebration in the northern hemisphere. Did you know that people who live on the other side of the world from us are bundling up for winter right now? Did you know that in Australia, Christmas is in high summer?
But here we are in the northern part of the world and in almost every culture, people are celebrating the return of life. We know from science that the creatures and the plants have not been dead, but have retreated into hibernation to protect their lives.
Now that is all changed. As we drove down the west slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains from Lake Tahoe yesterday, we were dazzled by the brilliance of white dogwood trees blooming through and under the lime green pine, and maple. We drove by banks of red, pink and purple tulips. Human creatures were stripping off their sweat-shirts and donning short and swimsuits to play in the cold, cold waters of Tahoe. Nothing could hold back their delight. The earth joined in the shameless celebration of the return of warmth and sun.
The people of Israel had a special celebration with this same feel. The Feast of First Fruits. It happened around this time of year, a little earlier. Since there is no longer a Temple in Jerusalem, it has been bundled with the Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread week-long observance.
It is a celebration of the first signs of produce returning to feed us for another year. It started when the farmers went out to their sprouting, greening fields and found the first budding fruit or head of wheat, they tied a reed around it, so they could go back and pick that first sign to bring to God in gratitude for giving it in the first place.
For the ancient people of Israel this meant the seven species of the land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. When they were ripe, they packed them in baskets and decorated them with whatever abundant beauty they could afford, from gold to birds. Like the tradition of creating May baskets and leaving them on the doorstep of friends. They gathered in the central village and began a great procession to Jerusalem. They wore garlands of olive leaves on their heads and the music of flutes added the feeling of dance to their journey. They sang Psalm 150 as they walked.
1 Praise the Lord!
Praise God in the sanctuary;
praise God in the great dome of sky and cloud!
3 Praise God with trumpet sound;
praise God with lute and harp!
4 Praise God with tambourine and dance;
praise God with strings and pipe!
5 Praise God with clanging cymbals;
praise God with loud clashing cymbals!
6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
When they arrived at the great city, the urban center of Jerusalem, the artisans, professionals and rulers came and stood in their doorways to bless them with peace. The farmers took the first fruits to the Temple and there offered them in gratitude to God. The priests and Levites were blessed with eating this food, since they did not have land in which to grow their own.
The urbanites were called to stand in honor of the farmers who processed through their midst, honoring their work and the abundant generosity of God.
We are all connected to the earth, and dependent on its returning to life each spring. We know from science, that the plants don’t actually die. Rather they go into their own kind of dormancy preparing to let loose seeds, shoots, flowers, new growth, each according to its kind at this time of year. This is the time of year to dance and celebrate the gift of food and beauty from the earth by God’s grace.
In much the same way, the people of the northern hemisphere have celebrated May Day, or some version of it. There is a swelling dancing in the village square, bringing the abundance of flowers – the earliest promise of fruit – accompanied by singing and dancing. When the flowers burst from the earth, there is nothing to contain the joy and gratitude and the abundance they promise. We celebrate the earth God has given us, to provide us our food in season.
I am reminded of the grand, exuberant joy of the flowers Roger has brought to place in our sanctuary. The first Sunday they were here this spring, it was like an announcement that life was back, in all its glory, thanks be to God.
This is the time to remember the discipline of gratitude. In Jewish spiritual practice, there is the goal to say 100 blessings a day – to foster God-awareness throughout life. Similar to gratitude. “Blessed are you, God, ruler of the universe, for you have …”
I wonder how many times a day we could say thank you to God. Would it help us to become more aware of God’s presence and abundance in everything we do? Might we become like the flowers of spring which bring joy and exuberance and dancing to the human heart? Standing in gratitude in the produce aisle, remembering God’s farmers, workers on the land, people with dirt under their fingernails and calloused hands, and bowing in gratitude – to God and our fellow human beings and to the fruit which nourishes us. This is the practice of May Day.