The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it... cultivate – bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.’ Psalm 104, 14-15
Come along to St Michael's this Sunday at 10am for our village's Harvest Festival.
Harvest has surely been celebrated ever since human beings first planted seeds, cut the heads of grain and stored them to use through the times of scarcity. When the children of Israel entered the Promised Land and left off their nomadic existence in the wilderness, they adapted the agricultural festivals being kept in the Promised Land and these have come down to us today: Lammas, the time of the First Fruits, corresponds to the Feast of Weeks when the first sheaf of the barley harvest was offered.
Our Harvest Festival corresponds to the Feast of Tabernacles which is described as “the feast of ingathering, at the end of year” (Exodus 23:16). This was the last and greatest feast of the Jewish year and it was sometimes simply referred to as ‘the feast’. During this time, the men dwelt in green booths or ‘tabernacles’ made out of branches, in commemoration of their time in the wilderness when there were no harvests, and they depended on God for their daily food. So there is much precedent in the Old Testament for a festival thanking God for food and farming. Land and faith in the Old Testament are inseparable, even as the cities of the exilic and post-exilic periods thrived and grew. People understood their dependence on a good harvest blessed by God.
The Gospels are full of allusion to agriculture and harvest and although early Christianity was arguably a faith of the cities people were clear about the provenance of the food that they ate. At the time of Christ it is estimated that around 90% of a person’s time would have been spent producing and preparing food. Since the very early days the Christian Church has historically played a key role in r
einforcing the connection between people and the land, particularly through the Harvest Festival which really came into its own during the Victorian era. Today, harvest is second only to Christmas as the most popular time for ‘going to church’ and is still one of the most popular celebrations, both in towns and the country.
It is interesting that many harvest celebrations are nostalgically redolent of a blissful era of harvest-home that owes much to Thomas Hardy. Others owe much to the excellent work of global aid agencies and fair trade bodies who remind us that food production and matters of justice in agriculture are global issues. But it seems to us at FCN, that neither of those extremes really make much connection with the people of this country, whether in rural or urban churches. Most people no longer have any familial links with farming and folk memory is fading of the communal importance of local harvests. Equally, third world and fair trade issues at harvest time appeal to our Christian sense of justice. They make rational sense and rightly pull on our heart-strings. Yet they do not connect with our experience in an immediate way as the celebration of harvest is meant to do. They do not help us link our faith to our dependence upon the earth and the way in which the food arrives on our plates.
Eating food is one of the few things common to all human experience. What type of food we consume and how readily available it is to us may vary widely. But we all eat. In our society the meals on our table will have been brought there through the contribution of many different people working in a variety of environments. This food chain typically involves farmers or fishermen, processors, retailers and those who purchase and prepare the food to eat. It is important that we reconnect our congregations with these realities. A harvest service is an opportunity to offer to God the contribution we make in bringing food to the table; to give thanks and pray for others in the chain upon whom we are dependent; and above all to praise God who starts off each chain by creating the sun’s radiance and giving life to all living things.
It may seem strange that we bring tinned goods to decorate our place of worship but these can be a modern way of acknowledging our dependence on God. On the other hand, lumps of coal or sheaves of wheat may evoke memories in older people of harvests of the past, when life was harder and the celebrations more poignant; just as the ‘tabernacles’ reminded the Israelites of the harder, more dependent times. For all generations, a reminder is appropriate of the basic humble elements of soil, water and grain on which we all depend, and the fruits of which we should share with the poor at this time.
Harvest is a wonderful opportunity to connect in people’s minds the growing focus in our society on environment, health and food with God. It is a wonderful opportunity to talk about the production and consumption of local food. It is a wonderful opportunity to giv
e thanks for all the wonderful gifts of creation and to reconnect with our place as stewards of that creation. It is also an opportunity to pray for and with the farming community, many of whom are struggling to make a living in today’s global economic climate.