Rise and Fall
My reading today comes to us from my Congregationalist colleague, Rev. Lillian Daniel, who serves in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
The young women will dance for joy, and the men—old and young—will join in the celebration. I will turn their mourning into joy. I will comfort them and exchange their sorrow for rejoicing.” So says the book of Jeremiah.
In my first year at Bryn Mawr College, one of the five Seven Sisters schools that remains single-sex, I could hardly believe how excited a bunch of jaded, sophisticated, feminist intellectuals got over dancing around a Maypole. But May Day was the highlight of the school year, celebrated the Sunday after classes ended.
The seniors woke the college president outside her home with songs, and then we were off to early class breakfasts and a parade full of medieval pageantry. Women who would never be seen in a dress suddenly appeared in white ones. Thus began an all day party that culminated in each class dancing around the Maypole, weaving the ribbons tighter around the pole as they ducked and weaved, collapsing at the middle, giddy and dizzy, from the circular athletics.
This holiday is associated with Roman, Celtic and Germanic festivals, all of which predate Christianity. When Europe was Christianized, many abandoned the holiday. Unlike some other pagan festivals, May Day did not get a Christian holiday dropped on top of it like a cherry on a sundae.
When my son was in the third grade, he came home as excited as could be with some big news. For a school assembly on dances from around the world, he had been chosen to dance around the Maypole. There on the hot tarmac of an urban public school playground, a diverse group of parents from all over the world watched a rainbow of children dance around the Maypole behind the basketball hoops.
The people on the sidewalk looked on in amusement at the scene. The children forgot all their instructions to skip daintily and merrily and instead tore around like bees in a beehive, laughing and shrieking. But remarkably the ribbons braided themselves beautifully around the pole. An ancient dance from another time wove us together across the ages.
Every year around this time, I wake up with excitement in my heart. Normally a story like this would begin with, “when I was a child” but it is true to this day. There is an excitement for today. It is Beltane! May Day!
The day on the Wheel of the Year where we pause and light the fires of summer in our hearts and celebrate, with the flowers in full bloom, summer wine for the drinking, and dancing to be had. The most enduring images in my mind of this day always involve walking up to the church of my youth and early adult years, nestled in a suburban landscape of elms and maples, with the old english stone building sitting comfortable.
I remember seeing the flashes of color flickering in the breeze as the ribbons of the maypole were swept to and fro. I could never tell you what the sermons were on Beltane for most of my life.
All I could ever think about was getting out there on the church lawn and skipping around the maypole with everyone else — with vegan baked goods, strawberries, silly masks, and the retelling of an ancient story shared across cultures — the triumph of summer over winter.
Long ago before this month was known as the month of May, our ancestors saw this time as one of having great festivals, processions, dancing, and celebrating life. From European traditions we are told of the story of the Green Man, a symbol of life and growth, being awakened from his slumber brought on by Lady Winter.
This day was also a day that was seen as having “no time.” Things slowed down, moments could be savored, the veils between the worlds were thin, just as they are on All Hallows’ Eve, and the world as we know it and the otherworld intermingle.
So great is that belief that the veil is thin, even today, many people in celtic cultures will still place rowan branches on their windowsills and throw primroses at their doors to protect them from any mischief that might be had by otherworldly spirits.
Whether you believe in such things or not, Beltane stands as a time when we pause to remember, more importantly than anything else, life. Just as All Hallows’ Eve is about remembering death and the passages of life. And from these remembrances, the two holidays, Beltane and All Hallows, divide the year into two halves.
The light and the dark. Yin and yang. Balance in the year, harmony to the seasons. Today, we enter in to the season of light, lasting until halloween. And it is a time to rejoice in the full bloom of the world around us, the smell of rain, the crispness of summer evenings, the mugginess that awaits us.
But we do so knowing that in the season of light we bring all of our experiences from the times in our lives when the light was absent. We bring our sorrows into this day and every day.
For the ancients, this was the beginning of summer, and it heralded and important time. The difficulty of the winter journey was at an end just when the weariness and disheartenment of it was starting to feel as if it would never go away. Food stocks were low and the drabness of gray skies and lifeless branches was bone deep.
But when Beltane came, the dullness and fatigue of winter was burned away by the warmth of the sun. While the ancients all but knew summer was here, they were weary of the Earth, they feared that winter could return any second. And being from Chicago myself, I have that same fear every year.
But for our ancestors saw the ground beneath our feet as a living thing, they believed wholeheartedly in the interconnectedness of all things, at all times — and so they would do all that they could to nurture the young crops being planted and encourage the sun to stay.
And so we find the rituals of this time of year coming into existence. Wearing crowns of flowers, making summer wine, jumping over bonfires, and dancing around a maypole amongst many others. They felt that their joy would convince the sun to say, at least for a little while.
Now, I know many of us here are familiar with Beltane rituals such as dancing, skipping, walking, galavanting around a a maypole. Some of us aren’t. And some of us have been doing it for years and years and still we can’t seem to get it right. But for those of you that know it, it starts out often rather joyfully.
Rather relaxed. Easy. Simple. You grab hold of a long colorful ribbon, look across and around the circle at everyone else and then the drum beat. It begins! And you walk, or skip, or do whatever the beating drum or music playing gives you.
Up and over and up and over the ribbons go, people draped in summer garlands, flowers in their hair, masks on their heads, people looking on, switching out for others as need be, up and over, up and over under the warmth of a sun that tells us Summer is here. It is idyllic to say the least. It is an image that is strong in my heart.
But what no one ever tells you when you’re weaving the summer, rising and falling with your ribbons, tying together the maypole, is that the ribbons get shorter. It’s common sense, but I can guarantee you it is forgotten every year.
Dancing and weaving becomes a sudden realization that you are about to smack right into someone, or get tangled in blues and reds and yellows, or tie a child to the maypole on accident. The closer you get to the goal, that’s when the maypole actually gets interesting.
The rhythm of weaving matters most when you’re about to trip over all of the other people gathered there with you. And still, somehow in the mess, somehow with masks flying off faces, elbows bumping, people giving up, much laughter, some frustration — the maypole stands, woven as if a pillar of rainbow. From the joy to the chaos, something harmonious remains.
Church is a lot like the weaving of a maypole. We all grab on to strands that bring us to this community, varied and colorful as they are, and together we dance as one gathered people. There are many different styles of dancing we bring to the life of church.
Some of us are quiet and prefer to hide in the shadows, others of us are head first, gung ho and involved in everything, and others, still, are testing out whether or not religious community is worth the dance to begin with. Whether from a rough religious past, our personalities, or any other number of reasons, church — the gathered people — can be a difficult thing to figure out and be involved in.
Beyond our different styles, we also bring many different masks to this community. We bring all of the stories we’ve told about ourselves and all of the stories we’ve lived.
We bring small and large traumas into this room, indescribable bliss and small moments of contentment, bittersweet or gray moments of life — they are all brought here every Sunday and we wear them, sometimes hidden, sometimes for all to see. And still we are given strands of this community and if we decide to grab hold, we dance.
We dance if we are broken and downtrodden, we dance if the masks we wear are far too heavy to bear, we dance if all is well, all is good, all is right. The invitation to bring all of who we are to this community, be in covenant with one another, grab hold and hang on for the ride is there for all in need of solace, sanctuary, or hope.
I love this day, Beltane, more than any other day in the Wheel of the Year, I dare say I might love it more than Easter, Christmas, or Halloween. Because today, on this May Day — even if the rain spoils our own maypole celebration, today represents everything that is possible in the life of church. We grab hold of our own colorful ribbons, bringing our full selves to this place, and we tie together the web of community.
But grabbing hold in the first place requires commitment. And I’m not just talking about contributing financially to this faith community — that’s another sermon for another time. Commitment to a faith community is about risk. It’s about knowing that we will not always be successful and that we have a group of people around us that will support us in whatever the result.
It’s about knowing that the only way the saving message of Unitarian Universalism will reach the ends of Kentucky is if we take the risk to speak that truth to people in need of hearing it. It requires us to bump elbows, to trip over one another, to take the long way to a simple answer or choose the wrong answer entirely.
It asks of us to dance, in whatever way we can, only as communities can, and know that even when we make mistakes, the love we have for this place is alive and felt and real. There is a harmony in this wild and predictable commitment.
And Beltane at its core is really about harmony. It’s about balance. It’s about celebrating the dualities, triplicities, and innumerable variations of life that give us order, chaos, joy, sorrow, fear, and love.
It’s about enacting the simple truths of harmony we find in this good Earth, but for us here, in this room, it is also about the harmony we find in community. A harmonious community makes no promise that things will be easy.
That they will not require commitment, sweat, tears, labor, and passion when passion is hard to come by. Such harmony does not remove the sting of failure, the bitter disappointments we will have in one another — volunteers, staff, ministers, newcomers, long standing members, lay leaders, no one is exempt.
The harmony we weave together as a community tells us that there are bumps in the dance, there are rainy days that spoil celebrations, there will be tripping, laughing, crying, there will be imperfection.
But this requires us, as Unitarian Universalists, to admit to something we don’t necessarily like to — our abundant flaws. Too often in religious life throughout history, our natural human flaws have been equated with sin and ungodliness — and our religious tradition has no room for guilting ourselves over being fully human.
But sometimes, in that affirmation we find a rejection of any brokenness. As children of the Puritans, perhaps it is part of our religious DNA, or perhaps there is just a fear of failure. I struggle with it. And I especially struggle with it as I near the year one anniversary since you called me as your minister.
But I struggle with it in all that I do. So I get it. As a nearly lifelong Unitarian, there is something about how we are as a faith that makes us squirm at many of our imperfections.
Author Peter Block speaks to this discomfort but also to one of the hallmarks of thriving communities. He writes:
A conspicuous capacity of abundant communities is their tolerance, their acceptance of human limitations. In community space, people’s limitations are intertwined with their gifts…
Community is about accepting people’s fallibility. It requires the willingness to live with people’s imperfections, more than being willing to live with their transgressions, which call for forgiveness, or not…Fallibility is part of the human condition, and therefore a reality of the relational world…
Institutions are not good at…sorrow, the whole tragic and sad part of life. They do not know what to do, because institutions are designed to last forever. They act as if they are immortal, which they are not. So failure, sorrow, and frailty threaten their mythology of eternal life.
The question facing any religious community then is how do we stop letting our fear of imperfection determine our commitment to a place such as this? The answer is to strive for the harmonious. You’ve gotta love those simple answers.
Harmony is not about just the good and the right, but it is about finding balance. Beltane, May Day, reminds us of this balance and how fleeting it is. How precious and limited life can be. It reminds us to savor the season of light, the joys of summer after the winter of our sorrows.
Light the fires of Beltane in your hearts, light your passions, dust off what remains of winter and seek a renewed balance. This day is but a symbol, a reminder, that to be harmonious in life, and in community, is to embrace our bright moments and our rainy days, our successes and our failures.
When we find that balance and when we know that we have companions for the many journeys ahead, commitment is a natural choice. So, whether or not we dance around the maypole today — whether or not we dance, I invite you to picture strands of colored ribbons flickering against a summer sky.
Will you take hold of one? Will you dance? Will you rise and fall, will you stick with it the closer we get and the rougher the going gets? Come, let us dance…terribly and wonderfully as on embodied people.