Solstice Service & Mummers

Whole Congregation worship.

A big part of recent Solstice services has been traditional sword dancing and mummers plays (Mummers Wiki) written and directed by our own Marc Vilain with production help from Helen Hill. This year the children will once again take over our sanctuary to bring you an updated play, as zany and full of antics and dancing as any that have gone before.

Reading: “Winter Solstice: A Paean to the Pregnant Darkness” by Judith Rich (adapted)

Winter Solstice: We come to the portal that separates darkness from light. Standing in this arch of time where Earth takes a breath before facing us back towards the sun, we too, take a breath, turn inward, pause in this pregnant moment and let darkness reveal its gifts:

Winter Solstice: A time to look back at the year gone by, gather its lessons and put them in the stew of your life. Time to let the heat of your presence cook the stew. Render the lessons into the sweet nectar of wisdom. Then drink of it. One-small-sip- at-a-time.

Winter Solstice: A time to let the longest night of the year seduce you into stillness. Time to silence inner voices, listen to the beating of your own heart. Time to breathe slowly, become the breath. Linger here. The night is long.

Winter Solstice: Time to savor the sweetness of the dark. Nothing to fear. It’s only you. And millions of years of Earth’s turning; away and then back, away and then back towards the light. It’s all you. The dark, the light, the fire, the night: it’s all you. You’re all it. Sweet oneness, savored in the dark.

Winter Solstice: A sacred link, where Earth’s veil thins, the unseen, seen. Images of ancestors and ancient roots threading back beyond time. Back to first humans, their fires still burning to call back the light. We are the ones who hold them sacred. We honor their struggles, their triumphs. We’re here due to them. They gave us our blood.

Winter Solstice: A fertile time, a time to ready the womb; a time for pregnant possibility. A time to sow seeds of imagination, to germinate in the darkness. A time to tend the inner hearth; be warmed by the coals of creativity.

Winter Solstice: The union of opposites. Fullness: emptying. Emptiness: filling.
The shortest day meets the longest night. Celebrate the dark. Greet the light. We’ve journeyed long; we’ve journeyed far. In summer, we rejoiced in the sun, now absent. In winter, we settle into the night, now present. We draw inward, tuck in our wings to keep warm.

Winter Solstice: Can you be with it all, just as it is? No fighting, no trying, no pushing the river. It flows by itself, so you watch it. You notice. You see twigs and branches submerged in the stream of your life. Without effort, the water flows over, under and around it all. Nothing can stop it; it goes on forever. Like you do. Like I do. Like we do.

Together: May you go on forever, like this most pregnant night of the year.

The Sermon


I love the notion of the night being pregnant with possibilities. For me, being pregnant was a watchful time, not wanting to miss the mystery unfolding in my body. What would it be like if I attend to the dark with the same curious watchfulness? I’ve been practicing and finding it hard because frankly I miss the light. I gravitate towards a solar spirituality, holding people in love and light especially in times of crisis. Perhaps we all do. We sing to the light of golden mornings and about walking in the light of love. Maybe it’s our way of constructing zones of safety to protect us from the things that scare us: dark nights, dark thoughts, dark emotions. If we could just defend ourselves better against these things, we think, then surely we would feel more solid and secure. But of course we are wrong about that, as experience proves again and again. Life has a way of breaking down our safety zones. “The real problem,” says spiritual writer Barbara brown Taylor, “has far less to do with what is really there than it does with our resistance to spending time in the dark and finding out what is really there.” I know from talking to folks that darkness is personal. Each of us has a different relationship with physical and psychological darkness as well as spiritual and theological darkness. Sometimes darkness descends and you have no choice but to find your way out, and sometimes you can practice entering the dark to discover who you are there. Either way, you learn lessons you could never have learned in the light. “Step one of learning to walk in the dark,” says Barbara Brown Taylor “is to give up running the show. Next you sign a waiver that allows you to bump into some things that may frighten you at first. Finally you ask darkness to teach you what you need to know.”

I remember first learning to walk in the dark, both the physical kind and the spiritual kind during the peak of my mid-life crisis. I was questioning love, marriage, parenting, just about everything. I routinely responded to the call of the coyotes by getting up in the middle of the night and walking the quarter mile to the 400 acre wildlife sanctuary at the end of our road in the middle of the night.
Without light I entered the wilderness zone, feeling more at home there than in the domestic confines of my house, relieved to be under the expanse of the stars and strangely comforted by the company of coyotes. I would lie down for as long as I could stand the winter cold , sometimes for hours, in the center of a short bridge spanning a river and listen after the coyotes quieted until I could hear something that sounded like the hum of a high-voltage wire. Since there was no wire for miles , the sound was obviously coming from inside of me. I had never heard my life before, but that was what it was. It was the sound of my life in the darkness, the hum of my nervous and circulatory systems combined. A hum no crisis could diminish and no amount of loss could weaken. I realized in that moment I was a beneficiary of an inner agency given by life itself, begun millions of years ago and imprinted in my genes, giving me a mind to imagine, and create, a will to decide an act upon, a spirit to respond with courage and hope. An inner light that I possessed no matter how dark the world, a light independent of effort, a light most visible in the dark.

About Mummers

The Harvard UU Mummers plays come to us from an age-old British tradition. Roving bands of mummers would perform in the street or in pubs at the holidays, often passing the hat, or in our case, the offering plate.

These plays are quintessential street theater: broad, humorous, irreverent, and sometimes immensely poignant. They often feature characters of lesser means poking fun at authority, and the topsy-turvy of that dynamic is why we ask our children to be our mummers. This is a day where they are in charge, not the adults of the church.

Mummers plays often feature a death and resurrection. One interpretation aligns this rebirth with the turning of the year, and in particular with the solstice — as the old year dies, and the new year comes to life. In many traditional mummers plays, the deceased character is brought back to life by a quack doctor. Doctor Aflack, as we call him, never misses Harvard UU’s mummers plays, but to us he really is utterly ineffective as a doctor, and we usually align the return to life with another common element of these plays, the Dragon.

Dragons appear in many British mummers plays, usually as the foil to Saint George. Our Dragon has way broader aspirations. Harvard’s Dragon is the annual source of some topical conflict, one year stealing all the books from the new library (the kids were too loud); or repossessing all the homes in Harvard during the financial crisis; or shutting down the Glean Team through copyright infringement laws (the case of Dragon Vs. Squash Soup Recipe); and so forth.

It is ultimately up to the communitarian spirit of the town to resolve this dragonly conflict. And it is through this resolution that the deceased character returns to life. At least, that’s how it goes in our mummers plays. They are a living folk tradition, and ours is just one tendril on a theatrical vine whose roots stretch across the continents and the centuries.

So: Can the President have his climate-controlled golf courses? He wants to know and Dragon’s newest invention may be just what he needs … Come armed with sunglasses and umbrellas to maximize your enjoyment on Sunday morning when all will be revealed.

Marc and Helen

Mummers Play 2017