‘Thanks be to God for all his indescribable gifts!’
Not so many years ago, when we visited the greengrocers, we would find, a small assortment of locally grown produce, various root and leaf vegetables, a selection of apples, pears, and possibly some plums. The vegetables tended to be those which you could grow in the garden, greenhouse or on the allotment. They were usually in a few weeks earlier than you could expect from your own home-grown produce.
Everything had its season, and we could look forward with eager anticipation to the first strawberries of summer, or the arrival of the cauliflower, cucumber or tomatoes. These seasonal delights; meant that each season held its own favourites for the lover of fresh food.
But how things have changed?
Now I’m not necessarily saying that this is a bad thing, and that we should go back to the “good old days”. For one thing it’s opened up some new markets for smaller countries to export the crops that they can grow and we can’t; and let’s pray for a fair-trade price to be paid within the exchange; but all this does mean for children growing up today the whole concept of a Harvest Festival really doesn’t mean as much perhaps as it did to my Grandparents. Silage gathered into round bales wrapped with polythene doesn’t have the same mystique as the sight of a combine harvester and fields of gently waving golden corn. And by the time the churches get around to celebrating Harvest, most of the crops have already been safely gathered in for some time!
However, this is not the same for all countries. We’ve all seen those horrific pictures on our TV screens of the problems throughout the world; especially some African countries with a total lack of rain. In some cases, the seed hasn’t even managed to germinate, let alone get anywhere near ripening.
What celebrations there must be in such countries when the conditions are favourable and sufficient crop is harvested to ensure that families won’t go hungry throughout the winter months. In countries such as these, there is little chance of a shortfall being made up by importing produce; other than charitable aid which might come after the peoples’ plight has reached the ears and eyes of the world’s media.
So, if there is no really defined time in late September when we can breathe a long sigh and say that the harvest is safely gathered in, why do we still continue to have Harvest Festivals?
It seems a question worth asking - I mean, is it simply tradition - a throwback to the Victorian lifestyle with echoes of Constable’s Haywain? Under normal circumstances, is it a chance to fill a few pews at a point in time between Easter and Christmas? If we no longer rely on a satisfactory harvest in this country to supply our needs in the way that our forefathers did in the past, then why all the fuss?
I’m afraid it doesn’t even help, if we look back at the history of the Festival itself, after all, throughout the ages people have given thanks for the maturing of crops that would sustain them through the following months. And of course, like many other ancient customs, harvest rituals - such as the offering of the first fruits to the gods - were taken over by the early church in an attempt to water down the influence of the traditional pagan beliefs.
By the Middle Ages the first corn from the harvest was made into the Eucharist bread on August 1st, Lammas Day. (Lammas means loaf/bread mass) When the harvest had been gathered in, “Harvest Home” would be celebrated in a farmer’s house. It was customary to use the last sheaf of grain to make a corn dolly, based on the belief that the corn spirit was contained within the dolly. When the feasting was over it was taken back to the farmhouse and kept there until the next Harvest Supper.
The corn dolly is still in evidence in the decorations of some churches today; and in my opinion, a rather unwelcome remembrance of harvest’s pagan past! This may all sound a bit depressing, but the closer we look at the harvest that has been handed down by the established church from its pagan past, the less it seems to have relevance to our modern world.
The modern British tradition of celebrating Harvest Festival in late September or early October, began in 1843, when the Reverend Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall.
But to understand the real significance of the Harvest Festival, it seems to me that we have to go back much much further, back to the real biological roots of our Christian Faith within the Old Testament and among the Jewish people and their relationship with their one true God.
From very early times the Jewish year was punctuated by Festivals. The “Feasts of the Lord”. Some were timed to coincide with the changing seasons, reminding the people of God, of his constant provision for them and also allowing them to return by way of an offering, a token of all that he’d given them. Others celebrated some of the great events of Israel’s history, and the ways that God had intervened to help his people when they were in need.
All were occasions of joy and celebration reflecting on all the good things that God had given to and done for his people, as well as times where the people could come close to God and ask for his forgiveness and cleansing.
We know that the Festivals were never intended to be observed out of mere formality and empty ritual. The prophets warned the people against reducing these Festivals to that level. The real purpose was spiritual; a great and glorious meeting together of God and his people. Among the various Festivals that the Jews celebrated are two which seem relevant to our Harvest Festival.
The first was the Feast of Weeks, which we can read about in Leviticus Chapter 23. Celebrated fifty days after the beginning of Passover, it was essentially an agricultural celebration at which the first fruits of the harvest were offered to God. The priest offered two loaves of bread made from the new flour, along with animal sacrifices. The Festival later became known as Pentecost - from the Greek word meaning “fiftieth”.
Doesn’t life get confusing? Now it seems as though we ought to be having our Harvest Festival on Whit Sunday!
The second Festival which I want us to think about is that of the Feast of Ingathering (or Tabernacles), which is an Autumn Festival held at the end of the fruit harvest. This was the most popular and joyful of all the Festivals lasting a full seven days. Celebrations included camping out in gardens and on roof-tops, in tents or huts made from the branches of trees. These tents (or booths or tabernacles) were and still are a reminder of the time that the people lived in tents after the Lord brought them out of Egypt and led them towards the Promised Land. We can just imagine what fun it must have been (and still is) for the children, and such a great opportunity for parents to teach their children the history of their great Faith in the one true God.
The Festival included a ceremony in which water was poured out and prayers offered for good rains for the coming season. It’s also suggested that it was during such a ceremony that Jesus stood up and declared ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water” ’ (John 7:37-38)
May I suggest that it’s somewhere between these two Jewish Festivals, The Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles that we can look for the real significance of our Harvest Festival today.
In a time when it’s difficult to relate to the Victorian print depicting harvests of old, and Constable’s ‘Haywain’ is only a fading copy on the wall these days. Many inner-city children wouldn’t recognise peas or broad beans if they saw them growing in a field, so maybe we should be looking for a deeper Spiritual meaning.
In this way the offerings we bring, the fruit and vegetables, the beautiful flowers and foliage (with which we would under normal circumstances be decorating our churches with today); can still remind us of all the good things that the Lord has given to us, and for which we can too easily become complacent. And while we’re saying thanks for the food we eat, what about the gas and electricity that is used to cook the food, the petrol that gets us to the supermarket, the homes within which we eat; the water that runs so freely when we turn on our taps; there are so many things in our lives that we should be grateful for.
Jesus’ words remind us that our needs are not just met by a constant supply of broccoli and sweetcorn. Jesus had a way of taking the ordinary things of life and bringing out of them a tremendous truth. Jesus seizes the opportunity in the way that only he could; any thirsty soul was invited to find deep and lasting refreshment through Faith in him. The blessing which Jesus offered was to be made available through the Holy Spirit; which had not yet been given in a new way yet to believers.
The Spirit had been active in the world from the beginning of time, but was not given to the believers in the full Christian sense until Pentecost, after Jesus had died, risen and ascended to His Father in heaven. (Jesus of course was the first fruits of the resurrection to eternal life, opening the gateway for us all). And there of course is another link to the first of our Festivals; which was the celebration of the first fruits but held when we now celebrate Pentecost.
I’m drawn to the conclusion that the overriding need of Christians in today’s world is to be constantly reminded of all the good things, both spiritually and materially, that our one true God offers to his people, in the same way that the people of Israel used those two Festivals to thank God not only for the provision of a sufficient harvest, but also for the fact that their God was constantly acting in their best interests. God’s love for his people could look beyond all the bad things they had done, all the times that they strayed from following him, and yet he still provided for their needs.
For that reason, I believe we should include a jug of fresh water alongside all the gifts we usually have on display, a jug of water reminds us of the Spiritual food without which we couldn’t function as effective Christians. For it was the gift of the living water, the Holy Spirit, to the believers in the book of Acts that was the starting point, the birth of the church, and without which we wouldn’t be worshipping today, giving thanks to God for all his love for us.
So, it is then two of our festivals, Pentecost and Harvest are seemingly linked by purpose and aim, and enable us now to thank God for all his good gifts. For the food we eat, for our material needs, for the meeting of our Spiritual needs. And with so much to give thanks for, our Harvest Thanksgiving should never be a mere formality or ritual. It will be as the prophets intended, a great and glorious meeting between the one true God and His people!
Even though we may not be able to all meet in Church today to celebrate the Harvest Festival, because of the Coronavirus epidemic, we can all still link up Spiritually by praying at home with our thanks-giving for all God’s gifts to us; including the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Or as St Paul says to the Corinthians:
Thanks be to God for all his indescribable gifts!
The Rev’d Jackie Fish, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 11/10/2020