It’s the time of year when churches still tend to have some kind of harvest festival. I was reminded of that this morning both by having to get the songs for our harvest service out to the various musicians, projectionists and so on, and even more by my daily reading happening to be Acts 14, in which Paul and Barnabas discourage the Lycaonians from treating them as gods by reminding them that the true God has revealed himself to them because “he has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” Ironically, the net result of this affirmation of God’s goodness is that Paul is stoned.
The harvests at that time, the Roman warm period, were certainly plentiful, and they are increasingly so now, partly from the greening effect of increased carbon dioxide. If the Lycaonians wrongly attributed their plenty to Zeus and Hermes, we seem to have buried ours under fears of overpopulation and climate change, to which I will soon turn.
The history of harvest celebrations in the Church is complex. Lammas, in the West, was originally adopted from the Jewish first-fruits festival, the bounty of the early harvest after winter dearth being celebrated by the baking of special loaves that were used in the Eucharist. In this way (as in the Jewish firstfruits celebration) agricultural blessing was connected with spiritual blessing, for the Apostle Paul calls Jesus, the Bread of Life, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor 15:20).
Remember, too, that the gift of the Holy Spirit, described as “the firstfruits,” was at Pentecost, that same firstfruits festival. But, like the offerings in the Jewish festival, the gift to the church of bread at Lammas (“Loaf-mass”) was always intended as a reflex of the bounty of harvest, which was entirely the gift of God. It was all about recognising divine blessing, and our utter dependence on it for life. Likewise in the slightly different Eastern context:
In the Eastern Orthodox Church the offering of first fruits takes the form of a thanksgiving and blessing. The produce is then consumed by the faithful rather than being given to the Church (though it may be donated as a free-will offering). The liturgical concept behind the blessing is the faithful offering back to God a token of that which he in his lovingkindness has provided, God blessing these first fruits and returning them to the faithful for their benefit and blessing.
Lammas was abolished at the English Reformation, and harvest festivals as Protestants know them came from the eccentric Rev Robert Hawker of Morwenstow in Cornwall, who in 1843 initiated a special service of thanksgiving to God for the harvest. The well-known harvest hymns, of which we’re singing one next Sunday despite the onlaught of American CCM stadium rock on our repertoire, all arise from that movement. Hillsongs don’t do harvest, it seems.
I think the emphasis on pure thanksgiving had begun to shift in Anglican suburbia in the 1950s of my childhood. What I remember was my Mum’s last-minute scramble to try and find some fresh fruit and vegetables suitable to take to church, when in post-war austerity we seemed to live off tinned processed peas, cornflakes and corned beef. The disconnection from the soil had already started in the towns, and the thanksgiving element wasn’t helped by the apparent aim of the thing, which was to distribute food to needy grannies – a worthy Christian act, but the duty to give is one or two steps removed from recognising and rejoicing in our dependence on God, as Jesus reminded his disciples in relation to the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume.
Since the sixties the stress has shifted again, and not back towards thanksgiving. Instead, harvest festivals seem to have become an occasion for drawing attention to third world poverty and our Christian responsibility to alleviate it. Whether Christian Aid or Tearfund began the trend, they have certainly capitalised on it. And as those organisations have become increasingly politicised, an element of guilt for third world poverty has increased. We greedy rich countries are responsible for millions being in poverty (footnote: despite God’s goodness), and what are we going to do about it? (Cue video of agri-projects in Africa).
It seems to me a bit like the child who gets a longed-for guitar for Christmas and would love to strum away joyfully, only to be told by stern parents that it cost granny a lot of money from her meagre pension, that he will have to knuckle down and read the tutor, and that millions of children in the world will never be able to have such an opportunity to improve their musical skills.
As you may appreciate, such a strong call to remedial action overwhelms the pure joy at God’s provision of all we need to eat and prosper, and so diverts attention away from him and back on to us. Rather than correcting the urban illusion that bounty comes from Tesco (blessed be He!) in recyclable packaging, we simply focus our idolatrous anthropocentrism in other ways.
Contemporary environmentalism has only exacerbated our ingratitude to God, especially since Tearfund et al have embraced it so enthusiastically. Harvest is now often about our single-use plastics and wicked petrol cars (but, for some reason, not the gigawatts of electricity wasted in the manufacture of, and addiction to, smartphones and videos) heating up the planet so that it is those same third world poor people who bear the brunt of extreme weather destroying their crops. Forget that food-poverty is at an all-time low because of fertilizers and improved infrastructure, both of them thanks to fossil-fuels, and because of the actual decrease in extreme weather events, and the aforementioned greening of formerly arid regions. Forget that the Bible says it is God, in his kindness, who gives rain from heaven, and not man through some obscure and somehow immoral side-effect of staying alive.
Millions of Christians (about three million, according to the stats) will go out of UK harvest festivals this month feeling guilty, or at best determined to “do something,” with little or no sense of gratitude for the astonishing provision God has made for us all on this good Earth. That elderly grannies should have fresh fruit, and farmers in India adequate water, is certainly part of the Church’s mission, but I question whether harvest time is the occasion to point it out.
In fact, without a greater sense of gratitude, and dependence on God’s goodness rather than human effort, I doubt that we are ever likely to develop a uniquely Christian and spiritual attitude to these issues. Rather, works-religion may tend to blind us to everything else, an example being a recent exposition on Psalm 24 I heard, in which the opening verses,
The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
and established it on the waters
were immediately connected to the importance of our doing “creation care” rather than the humble submission to God’s absolute sovereignty plainly demanded by the text.
The wheat and barley are largely in now, though the sweetcorn is still blotting out the views around our way, and leaving me constantly amazed at how a patch of bare soil in the spring could be hosting such a forest of food now. Well, the farmer made an effort, ’tis true, aided by his agri-chemicals and his diesel tractor. But what does he have that he didn’t receive? God gave the increase.
Look out of your window, see the blessing, and say, “Thank you, Father!”