Today we have come together to celebrate Lammas. Lammas is derived from a Celtic celebration rather in the same way as the dates and focuses of many of our Christian celebrations are. The Celtic name for Lammas is pronounced Loo Nassah, and our name for it comes from the Saxon for Loaf Mass. Alison has given more detail about this in this week’s newsletter. It was traditional to celebrate harvest of first grains and make a loaf from them to put on the church altar, and Alison has also been good enough to bake us a Lammas loaf which we have on our altar today to remind of God’s goodness in provision of another harvest.
Lammas is one of the ‘in-between’ festivals. The four main points of the year being the two solstices and the two equinoxes. In between them come Candlemas when we celebrate the returning light, Rogation when we ask God’s blessing on the growing crops, Lammas which is the beginning of harvest and Hallowe’en at the end of harvest and beginning of winter and the returning dark. Lammas also came at the end of what might have been for many a lean time, as few staple food crops can be harvested any earlier in the year, and last year’s stores may have been used up some time ago. Co-incidentally for us, these festivals often fall on or near 5th Sundays when we meet to worship together.
As it is mentioned in both our bible readings, I had hoped to be able to tell you today all about manna, but it has not been easy to find a good definition. The favourite seems to be the sap of Tamarisk tree although there are several other varieties of manna, which include honeydew from the larva of certain insects presumably similar to aphids. It forms at night and dries in flakes on ground in dry desert regions and I learned from the New York Times that some chefs still cook with it. Apparently it has an interesting flavour which different people perceive differently – to one it may appear lemony, to another minty. I also read that it looks a bit like Grape Nuts, if you are old enough to remember them, mixed with aquarium sand! It is also possible to buy a nougat-like sweet made with manna in Iraq but my guess is that it would be expensive.
In our reading from Exodus it is easy to see that the Israelites are not happy. Despite the facts that they had seen plagues in Egypt and the Passover, had seen Red Sea parted for crossing and coming back to stop Pharoah, that at their first oasis stop, which they called Mara (bitter) they had complained that water tasted bitter until God showed Moses a piece of wood which would sweeten it and at their second oasis camp at Elim they had found 12 springs and 70 palm trees. I now understand why some chapels and a church denomination have taken that name as it was obviously a place of plenty. However, it is easy for all of us to forget the good things that have happened when times get hard again, and they were now complaining – this time of starvation and once again, God provides for their needs.
From our gospel reading it seems that grumbling could have been a national characteristic. This crowd had seen Jesus performing miracles of healing, and so had followed him around the lake. Here they had seen the generosity of God shown with 5000 men – not counting women and children – fed a meal of bread and fish with baskets full left over. It is possible that they were now following in the hope of more free food. It could be that the crowd contained quite a few casual or itinerant workers who had little or no security of income or food which would account for them being able to follow Jesus for days at a time.
As soon as they catch up with Jesus, he sees through them, and challenges them with the thought that they were probably more interested in free food than in more teaching. He reminds them that they should be more interested in their spiritual welfare – food that endures for eternal life, and this gives rise to the question at the beginning of our gospel reading – ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus reply is quite clear – they should believe in him as he was sent by God. This raises another challenge from the crowd, that despite all that they have seen Jesus do, they want him to prove it again, and ask for a sign – (In John’s gospel the word ‘sign’ often refers to a miracle) – as they want Jesus to feed them again, as Moses fed their ancestors in the desert. This brings Jesus to his main point – he is the one sent by God, and he is the way in which our spirits will be fed. This chapter of John’s gospel is a long one and details the debate that follows this claim made by Jesus, but at the end it says many stop following him at this point as his teaching was too hard.
In the news this week we have heard a great deal about how our climate is changing -and now doing so alarmingly rapidly. We can no longer escape the fact that all the signs point to the uncomfortable truth that the changes that are happening are the result of human activity, and it is only by changing the way we live that we can hope to return our climate eventually to one that is easier to live in. We must accept the hard truth that currently those who are suffering the most from climate change are largely those who have done the least to cause it. I cannot be the only person who sees an irony in people taking flights to the Mediterranean only to be unable to leave their hotel rooms because of the extreme heat. We have been the fortunate ones this year as the path of the jet stream has given us the sort of summer weather that we love to complain about. Much of the damage has been brought about by over consumption in the wealthier nations. We would do well to return to the teaching of Jesus and learn to rely on God to supply our needs as he has promised. It may not be everything we want – the crowd that followed him discovered that, but it will be all that we need, with hopefully enough left over to help supply the needs of those who are currently doing without.
Lammas is when we give thanks to God for his goodness in providing the promise of a harvest, and to remember where the true bread comes from. It is also – with the beginning of harvest, a reminder that summer is beginning to come to an end. If this is a thought that disturbs you, it is worth looking again at the end of the story of the flood when God promises that not only will he never again destroy the earth by flooding, but also that ‘As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease’ (Genesis 8:22). Summer will come again – God has promised it!