Sermon: Lughnasadh ~ Life, Death, Harvest, Hope

This sermon was for the August 2nd, 2020, service of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick. Sermon text below:

My day begins in the garden right now.  I hand water my vegetables, fruit, and flowers with water from rain barrels.  There are more efficient ways to water a garden, but I’ve discovered that hand watering not only keeps my water bill down, it means that I spend more time just looking at my plants every day.  As a result, I frequently catch problems early on.  I generally know what’s happening with my vegetables – which plants are thriving; which ones are struggling.  There’s a running tally in my head of things I’m learning this year, and what they mean for next year.

It also means that my morning watering rounds show me exactly what’s ripe.  I carry scissors in my pocket to harvest handfuls of pole beans, leaves of chard, herbs, salad greens and flowers.  I’m looking for fruit that’s perfectly ripe: beans that are fully grown but not yet bumpy with the swell of bean seeds, salad greens still young enough to be tasty and not fibrous, chard leaves that are big and beautiful but not so overgrown as to be tough.  I’m looking for fruit that is at its peak of ripeness.

And then I cut it from the vine.

Yesterday was Lughnasadh, a pre-Christian Gaelic holiday celebrating the beginning of the harvest season.  It takes its name from the Celtic sun god Lugh and traditionally included a feast and offering of ‘first fruits’ – a gift of food newly come to ripeness.  A sacrifice of blood was also traditional, often a bull.  That part, of course, is no longer done, but it’s important to remember that the roots of the holiday include visceral, messy death.  Harvest is the balance of life and death.  At the moment of greatest sweetness, the perfect balance of flavor and texture, the life source of a fruit is cut to meet the needs and desires of those who will consume its flesh.

The fruit that is cut would continue its life cycle without our interference.  Pole beans left on the vine grow huge seeds within husks that become increasingly tough.  At the end of the season, the seed pods drop to the earth and in the spring new bean plants rise in that exact spot. Flowers left to grow do the same – the spent flower heads become food or shelter or seed, depending on the variety.  With most of our home-grown food, harvest interferes with the life cycle of a plant.  It limits its ability to continue to create new life.

I come to Unitarian Universalism through the lens of Paganism.  The Pagan wheel of the year can be described as a spiral pattern as well as an ever-turning wheel.  Starting at the first hint of springtime, we spiral outward. Just as the leaves unfurl to reach the sunlight, we reach out to each other. The growing season is our time of outward focus.  When there’s not a pandemic, the warmer months of the year are full of festivals, gatherings, and other community events.

And then the season turns.  As we wind down the warm months, we begin the inward journey.  We gather up our harvests – not just the physical fruits, vegetables and herbs, but the lessons, experiences, and knowledge of the growing season. These are the bright, shining yields that will help keep us warm through winter.

This moment, Lughnasadh, is the first hint that the spiral is about to reverse itself.  Our outward journey will come to an end this year and the inward path will begin.  The moment is not here yet, but we can feel it coming.  The increasing harvest and our joy in its abundance is a sure and certain cue that the bounty will not last forever.  We are already past cherry and blueberry season. The wheel continues to turn and the edge of the outward spiral is now in sight.

Most UU Pagans, and Pagans in general, seek to bring their lives into alignment with the cycles of nature.  It helps us feel closer to the rest of the planet we hold sacred and gives a structure and rhythm to the passage of the year.  That pattern also means that every year, as the growing season reaches its inevitable end, we pass into a season of death.  We spend time connecting with our ancestors and our loved ones who have taken the hero’s road before us.

The past five years of my life have been marked with the deaths of people close to me. In with the grief and pain I also found a strange gratitude.  Over and over again, I found that I was grateful for my Pagan ways.  It seems like a lot of people try to pretend that death doesn’t happen.  They push it from their thoughts and try to ignore the shadows left on their souls when they lose someone.  By being an adherent to a belief system that includes death as part of the natural cycle, that every year holds space for grief, mourning, and connection with those beyond the Veil, death itself is less terrifying.  I do not think the pain of grief is any less, but the uncertainty and fear around death that so many people experience are simply not as strong.  Grief is already hard enough. Jean Cocteau said “We need Death to be a friend. It is best to have a friend as traveling companion when you have so far to go together.”

In this season of abundance, at this moment celebrating the harvest, death is with us. Death travels in the scissors in my pocket, in the slowly waning daylight, in the calendar ticking down the days of summer heat.  Death is our witness, our constant companion in the face of loss.  Death waits for us at the end of the season every year, holding a lantern over the ancestral altar, shining that light onto the path of the inward spiral.

Lean in and savor the sweetness of the fruits of summer, the last dance steps of the outward spiral, the warm sunlight on your skin.  I wish you a bountiful first harvest, and a blessed Lughnasadh.

 

 

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