Saturday, 23 June 2012

Midsummer's Future Dream.

"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven". Ecclesiastes 3:1

Something that many people, across the divisions of culture, race and creed, have in common is a distrust if not a fear of change. The majority of us like things to run smoothly and to a certain extent predictably with a minimum of rapid or significant alteration. Religious communities themselves are some of the most resistant to change, fearing that even a small amount may rapidly undo the very foundations of their faith. Some of us may have even been familiar with groups or congregations who resisted change even as they realised that without it they would certainly cease to flourish or even exist. And this verity of human nature is not new, but reaches far back into the mists of human history. Our ancestors were perhaps even more aware of, and fearful of, change and it is therefore not surprising that during those times in the year when one season begins to change into another they created rituals to ward off danger or to secure good fortune for the times to come. Midsummer was one such occasion.

Midsummer festivals are found in many countries and testify to the power this time of year had on the imagination of countless peoples throughout history. In many European countries these traditions continue to this day, and are perhaps one of a small number of rituals that originate in the times before Christianity inspired the imagination of millions of Europeans, profoundly altering their ways of life. There are many customs associated with this day some unique to individual places and others shared across many borders. Two traditions seem to be widespread, one being the gathering of certain medicinal (magical) flowers and plants (in Galicia where my family originates, the custom is to collect rue, mallow, foxglove, rosemary, St John's Wort and elder, leave them outside in a bowl of water overnight and wash with that water on Midsummer day itself, 24th June) and the other to light bonfires. Fire, believed to purify and destroy evil, was presumably believed to be at its most powerful when its kin, the Sun was at its zenith, and hence fires were lit at this time, to banish away any harm from the growing crops.

Such customs and observances, and the beliefs that underpinned them, may seem a world away from the lives of many modern, and especially urban people, but I think that Midsummer contains a valuable lesson all can benefit from. At this time of year the sun is at its highest point in the sky, the days are at their longest, and from now on, almost imperceptibly at first, the days get ever shorter as we begin the journey back to the darkness of winter. And yet the bounty of the harvest is yet to come. The warmest weather of the year, the warmest sea temperatures of the year are yet to be felt. Indeed what we think of as quintessentially 'summer' is to be found mostly after the sun's strongest point. (The Cornish say it wonderfully in a proverb of theirs: "Gwave en Have tereha Goluan". Winter in Summer until Midsummer.)  The customs of this time testify to the need to "strike while the iron is hot", to utilise periods of blessing wisely to benefit times when things may not be so good.

Life is not a smooth journey, but like nature itself, has its cycles and seasons. The Bible in Numbers 33 enumerates the 42 encampments of the children of Israel's journey through the wilderness. Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Alter, the founder of the Gerrer Hassidic dynasty pointed out that the names of these encampments allude to journeys and experiences we undergo in our lives. Sometimes we camp at 'Marah' bitterness, sometimes we are in 'Miskan' sweetness. At times we are in 'Makheloth' to congregate, surrounded by friends, and at times we feel that we are at 'B'Kitzei HaMidbar' edge of the wilderness, lonely and isolated. We sometimes reach 'Har Sinai' mount Sinai, where it is easy to grow spiritually and at other times we find ourselves in 'Kibroth-HaTaavah' graves of desire, where we struggle with some of our desires. Each of us walks a journey through the spectrum of moods and emotions.

 There are days in our lives when everything seems to go perfectly. We wake up nice and early, get ready for work with plenty of time, have a delicious breakfast and glide to work without traffic problems or delays in transport. All our efforts succeed and our relationships with people are filled with laughter, happiness and kindness. Then there are those other days, when we wake up late, immediately stub our toes getting out of bed, hampered in getting ready when the children are in an uncooperative mood. We miss our bus or get stuck in traffic. We are reprimanded by our boss or end up losing our purse. Our relationships with people are fraught and tense and we just long for the sanctuary of our beds and sleep. Sometimes these good or bad streaks can last days or even longer, this is the stuff of life; alternating cycles of success and frustration.

The message of midsummer is to grab hold of those times when things are going well, when the sun of fortune is at its highest and one's life is flooded with the light of success and happiness and to invest effort at these special times for the sake of a better future. During these opportune moments, these auspicious times when life feels blessed, don't squander them, use the positive energy to inspire your personal and spiritual growth. Give more charity, undertake a new study course, burn away the malevolent powers of hatred by reaching out to someone you dislike or whom dislikes you.

The majority of european Midsummer observances happen on the traditional anniversary of the birth of John the baptist; 24 June. It is quite likely that John was for a while (even during the life of Jesus) an even greater and influential figure than Jesus himself. Josephus says about him:

"Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism......[many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words"

The Gospels themselves paint a picture of a hugely influential figure. Even our teacher Jesus is said to have said about John:

"I say unto you, among them that are born of women there is none greater than John" Luke 7:28

A comment so troubling to later Christians that, in the opinion of scholars, they had to add the qualifying phrase "yet he that is but little in the kingdom of God is greater than he".

John made the most of the unique times and circumstances in which he lived. A time in history whose circumstances would not be repeated again. And he struck while the iron was hot, and those sparks are still felt today. There is little doubt to me that it was John's message,  proclaimed with such passion, that ignited roaring fires of inspiration and spirituality in Jesus' heart, and which after John died, shone from Jesus during both his short but sacred ministry and horrific death and which continued to burn in the resurrected hearts of his disciples and followers long afterwards, fires which have continued to illuminate the world to this very day.

Nothing lasts forever, for all, but God, is finite.Yet properly utilised there are moments that can be almost alchemistically converted into eternal good for oneself and for the world entire.

A Blessed Midsummer to you all.

The hedges are all drowned in green grass seas,
And bobbing poppies flare like Elmo's light,
While siren-like the pollen-stained bees
Drone in the clover depths. And up the height
The cuckoo's voice is hoarse and broke with joy.
And on the lowland crops the crows make raid,
Nor fear the clappers of the farmer's boy,
Who sleeps, like drunken Noah, in the shade.

And loop this red rose in that hazel ring
That snares your little ear, for June is short
And we must joy in it and dance and sing.
And from her bounty draw her rosy worth.
Ay! soon the swallows will be flying south,
The wind wheel north to gather in the snow,
Even the roses split on youth's red mouth
Will soon blow down the road all roses go.
'June' by Francis Ledwidge

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