Vicar’s thoughts for August 2016

There were three men came out of the west,

their fortunes for to try

And these three men made a solemn vow

John Barleycorn must die

They've ploughed, they've sown,

they've harrowed him in

Threw clods upon his head

And these three men made a solemn vow

John Barleycorn was dead.

(Early English folk song)

It’s a bright sunny day, with almost no clouds. It’s mid to late July and already news has reached me that John Barleycorn is dead; his life taken, cut down, beaten and poured out into a Salop trailer.

Now, before you think the vicar has taken leave of his senses, I am referring, of course, to the barley that is being harvested. And the song refers to the ancient myth of the slaying of the com-king.

In the field that lay beyond the water- meadow that rose from the river at the bottom of our garden, we witnessed first the plough, then the green shoots, then the green grain that in the wind looked like waves coming in from the sea. Then, the grain turned golden, offering a reflection of the sun, was cut down by the combine harvester; the great yellow beast made by New Holland. After the harvest came the baling, after the baling the fire, stubble burned ready for the cut of the plough.

It's the most wonderful time of the year says the song about Christmas, but the yellow ochre tones of harvest, and the bright blue skies are every bit as magical. The barleycorn is dead, its demise a sacrifice to our need for life-giving bread. Of course, we don’t really eat barley loaves anymore. Barley is “Beer grass”; add it to hops and water, with yeast and you can brew a thirst-quenching, tasty drink. I’ve often wondered whether beer and bread were ‘discovered’ at the same time. Was it beer, not wine, that was offered with bread by our ancestors to the gods, at the festival that took place at the beginning of August?

Lammas, “loaf-mass”, the mass that was celebrated using the first sheaf of the barley harvest in mediaeval Britain; Is this a Pagan survival? Yes. Is it Christian? Yes again. In the ancient Middle-East the barley harvest began much earlier, in our Springtime. Only unleavened dough was used to make bread at this time of year; the new yeast had not yet developed, hence the festival of unleavened bread at which Jesus was crucified, after eating a supper in which bread was shared out as his body, given that we might live.

“Jesus is John Barleycorn. “For the com king [i.e. John Barleycorn] is derived (through human imagination) from the facts of Nature, and the facts of Nature from her creator; the Death and Re-birth pattern is in her because it was first in Him.”*

So, in Harvest, as well as in Easter and Christmas, we actually see the story of Jesus played out again. Life is given that we might live.

*C.S. Lewis ‘Miracles’.