May Day. Have you ever thought about how many diverse meanings are carried by this modest two word phrase?
A joyous celebration of the beauty and new life of springtime is what first springs to my mind. This spring has been exceptionally beautiful in Portland. Redbuds, dogwoods and tulips are blooming. Fresh foliage is springing from the branches of the trees. We have had just the right combination of gentle rains and sunshine for optimal beauty and fertility. Birds are staking out their territories and serenading their mates.
Around the world, from Scandinavia to Britain to Ireland to Germany to Romania to Latin America, folks dance around May Poles decked with flowers, crown May Queens and prepare special foods for community meals. Many of these celebrations predate Christian influence on the cultures that practice them, as in the Anglo Saxon roots of British May Day observances. And Christian responses to May Day have often been ambiguous, ranging from Puritan prohibitions in the 17th century to Mexican dedication of the day to the Virgin. But certainly celebrating the beauty and promise of spring after a long, hard winter comes naturally to us. I wonder how Bostonians will celebrate May Day this year after their epic winter snows?
May Day invokes a quite different meaning to people involved in struggles for fair wages, decent working conditions and respect for working people. Since the 19th century, May Day has been the international day of the worker, especially in societies influenced by socialist movements. (Quite apart from politics, I would argue that there are strong biblical roots for fair dealing with workers and deep respect for them. They are us. See, for instance, Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 7:32,) Here in Portland “Jobs with Justice” advocates will organize and carry out their annual May Day celebration on May 1.
Finally, I think of “May Day!” as a cry for distress from the captain of a sinking ship or from astronauts spiraling off course in deep space.
What striking differences in these distinct usages of two short words! What powerful yet contrasting meanings and associations they can carry, depending on the life situations of speakers and hearers! For instance, how different the greening of April and the blooms of May will henceforth feel for the three First Baptist families who have lost and buried their loved ones this spring, and the two families that are expecting their first child any day now. From personal experience I can testify how vastly different biblical concepts such as human freedom and divine sovereignty appear depending on the social context or even the family history one brings to their consideration.
My takeaway from this? We must trust in the Lord in all circumstances, diligently study and seek to follow God’s Word in the light of the Spirit, but be modest about imposing our perceptions upon others. And as Jesus counsels, we must seek with sensitivity and integrity to rejoice with those who rejoice and grieve with those who grieve (Luke 7:32).
—Dr. David L. Wheeler