As you read this, I’m trekking about the ancient lands of northeast Wales.
I’ve arrived just in time to celebrate Lammas or Lughnasad on August 01. Lugh is the Celtic Sun god and August is his sacred month often celebrated in lively Fire Festivals. As I come to understand more the connections between Christianity and paganism, the more I understand the need to observe and reference both forms of celebration.
Lammas, or loaf mass, is the first of three harvest festivals — the other two being the autumnal equinox and Samhain. The summer solstice is over and the light is beginning to wane. The first fruits of our harvests are ripening and beginning to enter our granaries, cold cellars, and barns. People bring loaves of bread baked with these first grains to church; gratitudes and blessings are spoken over the loaves which are then shared around with friend and foe alike. The goodness of God can be touched, smelled, tasted, and shared.
For that richness of community and life to happen, one form of the light must die.
As a Canadian, I understand too well the thrill of relief when the long, dark days of winter start brightening incrementally. Like most others of northern lands, I cherish our brief intense summers including our longer days. Dwelling on the loss of light doesn’t seem like something I would want to celebrate.
Yet stepping into this world of ancient nature celebrations reminds me how deeply disconnected I truly am from the world around me.
Like many of us, I was raised in church and Sunday School. I could recite the Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer by the time I was eight, the books of the Bible by the time I was ten, and full chapters of Romans by high school; I was taught to apply logic and rational reasoning to theological texts, and eschew pagan ways as evil or demonic.
Yet without consciously stepping into the seasonal rhythm of the natural world, I was deliberately keeping one and half hands tied behind my back. Memorizing the entire canon would not connect me with the living world around me.
In this lopsided theological world, I’ve created a conflated sense of fear of other traditions steeped in the movements of the sun and the moon, the light and the dark, the wind and the rain, the planting and the reaping. The darkness of winter becomes that hairy, fanged monster ready to gobble me whole. I’ve had no understanding of how light ebbs and flows throughout the year, or any substantial reason to take seriously the need to observe its movements. I now take it all most seriously.
What if the darkness was not an advent to be feared?
What if the depression and mood disorders the darkness offers could be lined with hope other than logic and reason?
In leaning into these ancient celebrations, I realize that while the light of the sun begins to wane, the celebration of fire rises up.
Even as the sunlight’s moments draw shorter, the fire of the ovens and the forges blaze hotter and bake those tantalizing loaves. Without these fires, we could not transform our first fruits from raw ingredients into edible food — food that nourishes our bodies and our communities. Without these fires, we couldn’t invite our neighbors close to warm themselves, tell stories, sing songs, or share in warm spaces to sleep.
The peak of summer gives me opportunities to share outdoor space with my neighbors — picnics, barbecues, and potlucks; camping trips, boat rides, mountain hikes, and parades. The days are long and warm, children splash at the shore, and fireworks are delayed until it is finally dark. The waning of summer does not end the opportunities; rather it extends them. I can share space with those same folks as we harvest berries, vegetables, grains; split and stack firewood, or go back-to-school shopping.
Without fire, the dying of the light would surely be my death sentence. That’s true. But I’m not left without light at all, am I? No. Quite the contrary.
Lammas celebrations not only ground me in honouring the natural tides of the seasons, but they give me opportunity to recognize more faces of community. Beltane, the Celtic spring festival, celebrates the coming of new life and the greening of the world. Infants and young couples are honoured as initiates into new phases of new worlds. Lammas honours those same seeds as they die and come into maturity as harvestable plants. Those plants represent life for us as people together.
I have no idea who I will meet in Wales during these festivities. There will be bonfires, market fairs, special liturgies, and (of course) good food. Like the ancient pilgrims of old, I’ll strap on my boots and see where the Spirit’s leading will take me.
The light dies.
And there is time and space to celebrate that death.
For in the death of daylight there arises power in fire that illuminates our deepest darkness, warms our frozen bones, and transmutes our harvests into bread for body and soul. Hope, therefore, lives in many faces. The waning of the sun is a marker of new life to come rather than new life destroyed.
And I am filled with gratitude.