Today is May Day. Here in the United States, this usually means making a paper basket at school to give to your parents (well, mainly for mom). As magnificent as this sounds, May Day has more depth than that in Western history, however. According to Wikipedia, earliest May Day celebrations “appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman Goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries.” The day also has roots in celebrating fertility (ancient Egypt), remembering political/social victories (U.S. and U.K.), engaging in sexual activity (Germany), warding against witchcraft (Germany), and commemorating the beginning of spring (England).
Back in medieval times, during the festival in England, at the break of dawn on May 1, villagers would go out into the forest and gather flowers and wood for the day’s celebration. The largest piece of wood brought back would be used as the Maypole. This gathering of flowers and wood is calling “bringing in the may.”
The poem The Court of Love (c. 1346), written by Geoffrey Chaucer (died c. 1400), was probably an inspiration to the poem which contains this excerpt, dated around 1541. It gives us a glance into the practice of “bringing in the may”:
And furth goth all the Court, both most and lest,
To feche the floures fressh, and braunche and blome;
And namly, hawthorn brought both page and grome.
With fressh garlandes, partie blewe and whyte,
And thaim rejoysen in their greet delyt.
The old English might throw you for a loop, but you get the picture: the bloom of spring brings delight and joy.
No matter the origins of this strange holiday, we can be thankful to God for giving us spring, and everything that goes along with it. After the cold, dark night of winter, life returns! This return is, to be sure, a veritable resurrection. Martin Luther once said, “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.” What Luther means is that spring exists to remind us that winter is not the end. Death is not the final answer.
Jesus never celebrated May Day or danced around a maypole, of course. But in order that we might sprout forth and blossom as God intended, he was rooted up and tossed out. He was nailed to a heavy, rugged piece of wood—not a maypole—but a Roman cross. No, there would be no dancing or laughing or rejoicing around this piece of wood. Only sorrow and pain and a pool of blood and tears below. He embraced his cross with joy, but his joy was one that could only be realized through suffering. On that wooden, Roman cross, Jesus absorbed the concentrated wrath of God—his holy, righteous anger at sinners—in our place, as our substitute. He experienced spiritual and physical death on our behalf.
But our Lord Jesus did not stay dead. No, he rose from the grave like a stem bursts forth from beneath the soil, conquering death. Jesus became the “first-fruits” of many others who will burst forth from death to life and be transformed to look like him. All who are united to Jesus by faith will share in his life. His resurrection is their resurrection. His joy is their joy. His triumph is their triumph.
This is absolute reality. This is where springtime and maypoles find their ultimate meaning. Let this reality be on our minds and captivate our hearts this season when we see budding leaves and blooming flowers, smell BBQ and freshly mown grass, or hear chirping birds and children at play. These are good gifts, yes, but they are merely pointers and reminders a much greater, eternal gift.