This point on the Wheel of the Year we celebrate the joyous return of life to the land, where the long dark winter is a distant memory as we look forward to the summertime. It is now approximately half-way between the spring equinox and summer solstice, and we are at the peak of springtime. Let us joyfully leap together this fiery, fecund time of Beltane, landing firmly in the “Merry, merry month of May”.
At this time (in the northern hemisphere), Mother Earth receives her annual, juicy infusion of life giving energy from her Divine Creator – a promise breathed into her from her beginning. Brother Sun continues to travel his increasingly longer path through the sky, caressing Earth’s skin with his warm rays for longer each day. Earth and Sun dance together and the land is lovingly held in a warm embrace. Sap flows through throbbing veins of plant and animal, and fiery passions begin to rise.
Love is in the air!
Springtime lambs who were ‘in the belly’ at Imbolc now frolic in the fields, and rabbits and hares are busy doing what comes naturally to them. Around us we see plants putting on their finest floral displays, luring passing insects in for a tasty treat and ensuring their pollen is carried to fertilise other flowers. Birds are returning from their overseas vacations. Hedgehogs and other animals have stirred from hibernation and are awake, scurrying around for food. Animals and plants freely feast on all that is the gracious providence of the Creator. It’s a mad scramble for resources which will enable reproduction and the continuation of the species. And so the cycles of nature continue.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come…”
Song of Solomon 2:10-12 (NRSV)
Here be Dragons
Around the beginning of May is a triple celebration, the first of which relates to St George, the Patron Saint of England, celebrated a week earlier. It comes as a shock to many that, unlike the saintly patrons of Wales, Scotland and Ireland who are remembered for their spiritual attributes, St George is remembered for his military might. An even bigger shock comes when it’s realised that St George was a Palestinian and probably never visited England, despite there being a Dragon’s Hill near the White Horse at Uffington, Oxfordshire, where he is supposed to have slain the legendary dragon. He was apparently beheaded in AD303 when he refused to deny his faith. His flag is flown now in England more than the Union Flag, but sadly an uneasy tension exists between national pride and bigotry, and his flag is often used as an excuse for the latter rather than the former. However, the story of St George and the Dragon is one that is archetypal of bravery in the face of evil and adversity; one from which we can still gain much that is good.
Maypoles, May Queens and Morris
The second of our celebrations is May Day. We still celebrate this with a bank holiday and across the land The May Queen, mummers and morris dancers, the May Pole are still celebrated villages, towns and even cities. All of which are a celebration of fertility, colour, music and dance – all that is good in life, though interestingly, associations of the May Pole with fertility are a recent invention, courtesy of the film The Wicker Man (1973).
Jumping the Beltane fire
Our third celebration is the ancient festival of Beltane, which is experiencing a resurgence in interest in modern culture…
Beltane means “bright” or “goodly” fire. This ancient fire festival is first described in ancient Irish texts suggesting that it was celebrated around the first of May. Two fires would be lit and the cattle and sheep would be driven through these symbols of protection on into the summertime pastures. It stands on the Wheel in direct opposition to Samhain, which is the gateway to the winter and a time of remembering mortality. Tradition has it that men, women and young people would jump the fire three times to ask for good fortune, often saying prayers at the time.
The Greenwood Marriage
There exist similarities between the Christian and Pagan pathways in the more modern retelling of Beltane. The latter’s story of the “Greenwood Marriage” where the horned god and the fertile goddess are united has parallels in the Sacred Texts of Jesus where we read of the intimate relationship the Divine seeks to share with all people who embrace the love of the Divine Child. Symbolically it is described as a marriage between the people, called the “Bride of the Divine” and the Divine Child. This sacred union is celebrated on the earth and in the skies, all of which are purified in a future fulfilment of the relationship, which in the Texts is pictured as the greatest of wedding feasts.
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
Revelation 22:17 (NRSV)
“I am faint with love”
One of the great hang-ups within the Western Christian church seems to have been that to do with intimacy between two lovers. One only has to read the book of the Song of Solomon, a book which was rarely used in the prudish times of the Victorians. Within its pages we see that sexual intimacy is quite normal, and even explicitly encouraged by the incredibly provocative words therein. “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.” – fairly tame words found within, yet what imagery does the following conjure up for those who care to imagine…
I slept, but my heart was awake.
Listen! my beloved is knocking.
“Open to me, my sister, my love,
my dove, my perfect one;
for my head is wet with dew,
my locks with the drops of the night.”
I had put off my garment;
how could I put it on again?
I had bathed my feet;
how could I soil them?
My beloved thrust his hand into the opening,
and my inmost being yearned for him.
I arose to open to my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with liquid myrrh,
upon the handles of the bolt.
Song of Solomon 5:2-5 (NRSV)
After this, I think I’m going to have to take a cold shower, whilst listening to this wonderful song by Damh the Bard – Under a Beltane Sun.
May this season be a joyful time of renewing intimacy, both amongst friends, lovers and the Divine Child, Jesus Christ.