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May Day

Some thoughts on May, Rogationtide… and  the election…

May 2010 – I wonder what sort of month it has been for you so far?  It might have included a holiday or some time in spring sunshine ( well, there was some earlier in the month) It might have been a time of familiar routines and getting on with the  every day business of life.

The arrival of May in European countries in past centuries heralded jolly outdoors celebrations – maybe originating with the Romans who held their feast of flowers on May 1st. We will all have heard of May Day celebrations in this country, not least dancing round the maypole and it was so good to see this custom still going strong in St Neots last Saturday evening in the market place with Sheila’s Dance Group.

One of the oldest customs in England was that of “ Bringing   home the May” – when everyone of high or low estate went out early on May Day morning to gather flowers and collect the May dew. The later was thought to possess strange powers of beautifying the complexion.

You may like to know that on May 2nd 1791 the London Morning Post reported:

“ Yesterday, according to superstitious custom, a number of persons went into the fields and bathed their faces with the dew on the grass, under the idea that it would render them beautiful” .

Maybe some of our  jaded politicians,  who were frantically running round the country  trying to persuade us to vote for them on May 6th should have tried that old custom  to see if it had made them more attractive to their electorate.

I will confess I stayed up all night to watch the results come in – though dozing off now and again as the hi-tec swingometers did their thing. I certainly could have done with some fresh dew in the morning – I don’t look good on no sleep!

May Day celebrations were at their height at the time of the Tudors and Stuarts. Henry 8th, that well-known reveller, often went a-maying with whatever wife was with him at the time with her head intact. Catherine of Aragon especailly enjoyed the custom. Queen Elizabeth 1st often had May Pole dancing at Greenwich. An eccentric clergyman from Hatton neat Warwick called Dr Parr took much delight in may-poling, dancing with his parishioners with great enthusiasm on May 1st in the churchyard.

Most if not all villages will have had their May Day celebrations in the past and the custom of crowning the May Queen was a highlight of the year.

At the heart of all these May time festivities was the celebration of Gods renewal of the earth in spring. Maybe people in the past, so closely linked as they were with the land and the business of cultivating the soil, were far more aware of  the changing seasons than we are. The warmer weather, the longer days, all meant that the growing season was truly under way. The long, dark days of winter had truly passed, new life was breaking out all over the countryside. Why not celebrate with colourful customs which brought laughter and cheer into peoples hearts? I rather like the idea of a scarecrow festival around this time of year in a village – something earthy and simple about it reminds us we are very much part of the world of nature.

As you will also be aware, today in the Christian calendar is Rogation Sunday.

Rogation Sunday gained its name from the old Prayer Book gospel of the day which ran

“ You did not choose me, but I appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask my father’s name, he may give it to you”  The Latin for ask is Rogare.

It is interesting that in the 1630’s Rev George Herbert commended the rogation themes of blessing fields and beating the bounds. He was a great believer in processions and felt they should be encouraged to:

  • ask Gods blessing on the fruits of the fields
  • to ensure that justice and fairness prevailed in the preservation of the bounds of a parish
  • to encourage charity in loving, walking and neighbourly accompanying of one another with reconciling of differences at the time if there be any
  • to encourage Mercie- in relieving the poor by a liberal distirbution of largesse at this time.

In Victorian times in England, the idea of beating the bounds  was introduced into the processions. People would gather at church and walk in procession led by priest and choir. People would make wands from willow trees, strip them of bark and decorate them with flowers. At certain places, stops were made for refreshments. Each time a boundary was reached, a tree, stone, bridge was beaten with wands. Prayers would be said for the preservation of crops from mildew and a good harvest at significant location. Beating the bounds did bind together the generations and the various village networks.

Some parishes still carry out the  custom of  walking round the parish –  for those of you who would like a stroll this afternoon, there will be a Rogation Walk with our archdeacon Hugh starting at Perry.

.At the heart of Rogation Sunday  for many years has been  praying – asking God to bless the newly sown crops for another year – and in the days when farming was precarious (more so than now) and bad weather  and crop disease could badly effect a whole community, praying for a healthy crop was vital.  Not least, our prayers this morning will include intercessions for our modern Day farming community and farmers overseas who often face such an up-hill battle for survival.

May then hopefully brings us warmer weather, new life in the gardens and fields, a reminder of some of the older customs associated with the rebirth of nature and Rogationtide with its ancient appeal to God to bless our  crops and protect our livlihoods.

It also tries in perfectly I think with Christian Aid week which often falls around Rogationtide – depending on the date of Easter. A big thank you to everyone who delivers and collects envelopes – good to remember that every penny helps Christian Aid to enable communities far less fortunate than ourselves to set up new and life giving projects to improve the quality of thousand of peoples lives.

Now and again – and mercifully usually only every five years or so May can bring us something else a General Election. The last one had been on May 5th 2005 – and I found an old sermon where I wrote on May 1st 2005         “The press seem to be significantly bored by the election this time round, complaining that few if any politicians are stirring us with any passion in a campaign dominated by accusations and  back-biting. Ah well, we can but hope that whoever emerges with a mandate to govern this country for the next few years does truly attempt to usher a new start for the UK, not least tackling inequalities in wealth”

Five years on – we are starting out again with a new government – a rather different looking one than before – lets hope all the things that have been promised bear fruit.

Driving around last week I saw a poster high up on a Baptist Church:

It featured a picture of a blown-up balot paper, it has a big cross in one of the voting squares and the words “ MAKE YOU CROSS COUNT”.

It had a double meaning, of course. For those who might have been tempted not to vote – it was an encouragement to do so…… ( interesting that 44 million were eligible to vote and  c 29,650,000 did so)

But the poster had a more subtle message of outreach – make your cross count – make sure that the faith we believe in really does make a difference to the way we live.

For the early Christians, following Jesus wasn’t just a matter of ascribing to some teaching and living out a way of life which measured up to Jesus’ command to love thy neighbour. It often meant enduring persecution and even being martyred. The early Christians persecuted under the Roman emperors gave everything in their determination to make the cross count.

And I often wonder how these brave early Christians coped with these intense pressures and dangers.  The answer is both profound and simple – they had constantly with them in their hearts and minds the words which Jesus had spoken before he died and which would have been kept alive in the daily memories they shared of his presence with them.  These words gave them courage and fortitude.  Jesus promised them in his words recorded in John’s gospel that he would leave Gods spirit , The Holy Spirit, the Counsellor to be with them at all times. With that Spirit came Gods peace  “ Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” he said to them.

And it matters so much how we make Jesus’ cross show in our lives. It can show in how we treat each other. In how we approach our work, our leisure, our home life. How we spend our money, how much interest we take in issues of social justice and poverty.

It can show in how we react to misfortune, illness and grief. It can show in how we treat people who many may regard as outcasts and not so good to know. In the tradition of Christianity that we have grown up in and adopted in this country, we do not have to tread the path of martyrdom like the early saints did, but living out a Christian lifer isn’t always easy  even in safe village communities where many perhaps don’t get church or  feel it has any relevance.

I guess most of us did put a cross on a ballot paper last Thursday – and as we remember doing that on May 6th 2010 –  lets think how we can make the cross of Christ count in our lives in the days  to come. As we go home, maybe we could think of one thing to put in our own personal manifesto these May days so that people catch a glimpse of Christ’s love in their encounter with us.

Amen

May 7, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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