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Gratitude and Sacrifice

Excerpt from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall-Kimmerer

Not long ago, I dreamt of a market high in the Andes mountains, with all its vivid textures and smells. I walked through the stalls with a basket on my arm as always and I went for a bunch of fresh cilantro. The stall keeper and I chatted and laughed and when I held out my coins she waved me off, patting my arm and sending me away. A gift she said. Muchus gracias senora, I replied.

Next was the bakery, with clean white cloths laid over the beautiful round loaves. I selected a few loaves and when I opened my purse to pay this vendor too gestured away my money as if I were impolite to suggest paying. I looked around in bewilderment; this is my regular market and yet everything had changed. It wasn’t just me - no shopper was paying. I floated through the market with a sense of euphoria. Gratitude was the only currency accepted here.

I looked in my basket: two zucchinis, an onion, tomatoes, bread and cilantro. It was still half empty, but it felt full. I had everything I needed. I glanced over at the cheese stall, thinking to get some, but knowing that it would be given to me, not sold, I decided to go without. It’s so funny; had all these things been simply marked at a low price, I would have scooped up as much as I could. But when everything was a gift, I felt self-restraint. I didn’t want to take too much and I began to think of what small presents I might bring to the vendors tomorrow.

Slowly, my dream faded, but the feelings of euphoria and self-restraint did not. I thought of it often and recognize now that I was witness there to the conversion of a market economy to a gift economy. From private goods to common wealth. And in that transformation, the relationships created became as nourishing as the food. Across the stalls and blankets of the market warmth and compassion were changing hands. There was a shared celebration of abundance for all we’d been given and since every market basket contained a meal, this had become not just a place of abundance, but a place of justice as well.

Good Morning Everyone and Happy Lammas Day!

While Lammas is not a particularly well-known or important holiday now. For most of human history, Lammas was celebrated by many different names all across the globe. The status of being a major holiday was only lost in Europe at the time of the Industrial Revolution when much of the population left their agricultural settings to work in factories in cities. In the USA this holiday has never been particularly popular, but that is in large part to do with the Puritan Settlers and their conscious choices in separating themselves from Pagan practices that had been brought into Christianity. We will talk about more in a moment.

Now, while there are many names that are associated with this holiday throughout different times and cultures there are two names in particular that are most commonly used today. Those names are Lammas and Lughnasadh and in those names, there are hints about what the holiday is and what it emphasizes for different people, the two names also envision the Divine in different ways and so we are going to look at that as well.

So first, the name that I most commonly use for this holiday, Lammas. Lammas is a compound word that combines the old English word “Hlaf,” meaning “Loaf” with the word Mass, referring to the Christian Service of Holy Communion. Lammas was, in the medieval period, celebrated by the gathering of wheat, barley and rye from the fields and then taking the first portion of the harvest to the Church to be blessed and stored in order to make the bread that was used in the communion services throughout the year.

Feasts would also be hosted by Lords of the Manor for their tenant farmers as a reward for safely getting the harvest into the barns and a Queen of the Harvest would be crowned with a wreath made of wheat stalks. All these practices were pre-Christian rituals that were subsumed into Roman Christianity as it spread. The Queen of the Harvest especially is an old tradition which represents the Goddess in her phase of the year as Queen.

As the year progresses, the story of the Goddess does as well. In the early spring when the crocuses are blooming, the Goddess appears as a maiden, young and healthy, calling the plants and animals out of slumber. In May, she is seen as a mother, tending the glorious life she has called forth from the earth and now at Lammas we see her as Queen over all that is being brought in from the fields.

While we tend to think of Thanksgiving as our harvest festival where we stop to give thanks for all that we have, for our ancestors, it was Lammas that really pointed people towards gratitude and awareness. While much harvesting would still need to be done with vegetables and berries and fruits still growing, Lammas was when the grains, which made up over 80% of a peasants caloric intake, were harvested.

Apples and pumpkins, cucumbers and melons are all wonderful additions to a pantry, but even gathered in multitudes, if the wheat fails, there is no hope of surviving winter. An abundant Lammas meant that all was well for another winter and that security allowed people to rest and relax into the longer and colder nights as they inevitably came.

On this day then, we remember with our ancestors of old just how much we have to be grateful for. This is an incredible time to consider that even the most simple of foods required sun and rain and good soil and dozens if not hundreds of people to get it to us. A practice of gratitude for our abundance cultivates within us an awareness of just how incredible it is that we have such an abundance and helps us truly appreciate the power and wonder and the fragility of the lives we are living.

Here on Lammas, standing before us in all her glory, we see the Queen of the Harvest as a personification of our sense of security, peace and togetherness as a community. We rejoice in our ability to face the long and dark of winter together.

There is another side of this holiday however, that we need to discuss. The other most popular name used for this festival is Lughnasadh. This word which literally translates to “The Funeral or Assembly of Lugh.” Lughnasadh focuses on the Life of the God, the masculine side of the the Divine. Now, like the Goddess, the God begins in the early spring as a young man, full of life and virility whose passion brings the world to life and in early summer he is seen as a father figure for all that is growing and springing to life. At the time of Lammas however, the paths separate. whereas the Goddess has been crowned Queen at Lammas, The God can be found on this deathbed.

This side of the story appears not just with Lugh from Celtic mythology either, but in all sorts of myths. In Egypt there is the death of Osiris, in Greece there is the descent of Dionysus. In Sumer and Babaylon it was Tammuz who went to the underworld and in Japan it was Izanami. The Dying God motif is still prominent even today in our modern culture. If you look to Christianity, Jesus is often depicted hanging in agony upon a cross, his blood being spilled for the sins and sorrows of the world.

These stories of the Dying God remind us that abundance doesn't just happen. In order for abundance to be secured, a sacrifice must take place as well. There is no spring without winter and there is no resurrection without death. What makes compost so nutritious for plants is that it is made of decaying matter that was once full of life and health and it is that life and health that the new plants feed off of. This time of year is a time of great abundance but it is also the time where we acknowledge the price we paid for it. As Jesus of Nazareth says in the Gospel of John:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will remain alone. But if it dies, it will grow and produce much fruit. In the same way, those who cling to life will lose it, but those who give up their lives will have life everlasting.”

While the name Lammas calls us to celebrate our abundance and give thanks for all we have, Lughnasah asks us to consider just what was sacrificed for us to have what we have. There is a difficult reality that as Americans we need to reckon with that this day highlights for us. From our food to our coffee, our clothes to our gasoline, much of the abundance we have access to around us exists because of sacrifices extracted from poorer and underprivileged peoples around the globe. Unfair wages, forced labor, the exploitation of children and damage to the environment are just a few examples of how our over-abundance has hurt others. While Gratitude is important, if that gratitude does not lead to a call to justice, it is really just empty words that don’t mean anything.

As people here today then we are called by this celebration to approach our many blessings with an open heart, but also with a clear head. We are called to give thanks for our abundance but also remember where it came from and who is going without. Lammas is the day we celebrate all that life has to offer, but Lughnasah reminds us that our celebrations are not complete until all people are living in safety and all are being fed.

As we go from this place then, may we be a people of gratitude and generosity, taking conscious steps towards living a life of abundance for ourselves and for each other. May we be aware of the challenges that face those less fortunate and be conscious of the ways we contribute to the mistreatment of others. May we be blessed on this day, but may we also have the courage to be a blessing to others.

So mote it be, Amen.

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