written by Megan Thomas
Today is May Day. It is one of the four cross-quarter days within the old agricultural calendar of Western Europe, falling between the equinox and the solstice. It’s a bank holiday in the United Kingdom, a workers’ holiday in many countries, “Law Day” according to the American Bar Association. It was a traditional spring holiday, a time for merry-making and pranks, singing and dancing, lighting bonfires and gathering flowers. Like many folkloric seasonal celebrations it acquired a Christian overlay. For some it became the first day of a month devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of May. In Protestant England, the old May Day carols were cleaned up so they could be sung in polite company. Here are a couple verses of a May carol I learned as a schoolgirl:
The moon shines bright, the stars give a light
A little before ‘tis day;
Our Heavenly Father, he calls to us
And bids us to wake and pray.
. . . . .
My song is done and I must be gone,
No longer can I stay.
So God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a joyful May.
And yes, 50 years ago we sang such songs on May Day and we danced around the maypole at my school.
Today the crabapple and cherry trees are in full bloom, vibrant and hot pink against gray clouds. We’ve had a cool damp spring in New Jersey, which has preserved the blossoms during Eastertide. Cardinals, goldfinches and other songbirds are at the feeder, foxes are romping in our backyard at night, honeybees have found the azaleas.
Meanwhile in spite of the natural beauty around us, the coronavirus is winnowing the population of this state, striking the elderly, the disabled, the poor and prisoners especially hard. We pray, we console one another, we hope for better times, we do our best to remain patient, as we hold the bleak news of death and decline in tension with new life and the extravagant beauty of Eastertide.
One of the Psalms of Eastertide is Psalm 117. It is part of the “Egyptian Hallel,” Psalms 113 through 118, which are praise psalms sung at Passover and other Jewish festivals. Perhaps these were the Psalms that Jesus and his disciples sang at the Last Supper. Episcopalians recite them during Easter week and beyond. Psalm 117 is appointed for the Eucharist today.
Praise the Lord, all you nations; *
laud him, all you peoples.
For his loving-kindness toward us is great, *
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever. Hallelujah!
It’s a short, sweet song of triumph and utter joy sung for the benefit of the whole world: our Lord is supremely merciful, our Lord is faithful in every time and place, even in adversity, even in the face of death. Not a May Day carol of the usual sort, but you could still sing or pray it today.
Lord, as you led the children of Israel out of slavery and death in ancient days, we trust you to lead us out of pain and suffering on this May day and every day. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
The Reverend Megan E. Thomas is Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ewing, New Jersey