Thinking about harvest, I always think of the concluding verse of Psalm 65: The folds shall be full of sheep: the valleys also shall stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing. The sentiments expressed in this Psalm are, of course, appropriate to today’s Harvest rejoicings. It is thought by commentators that the composition of Psalm 65 followed a severe drought that led to famine in the land. Prayers for relief had been answered by God and the barren wilderness had been transformed and restored to green pastures and sprouting fields. The community gathered in the Temple, the place where it was believed that God dwelled on earth, to offer him thanks for their relief from its privations. But the Psalm does more than just say thank you for God’s bounty and munificence in relieving their hunger. Its fine poetic language also demonstrates how the chosen people displayed their understanding of the totality and comprehensiveness of their belief in God, its inner harmony and wholeness. This comprehension included, in their minds, the visible and invisible; the internal and external; and things of past, present and future; all seen and experienced at the same time. The Psalmist envisages that this one particular event, relief from famine, provokes a thanksgiving in the widest possible context, reflecting the full redemptive work of God. In this Psalm, God is the focal point of the poet’s thoughts. His delight in all the blessings of this earthly life, which he makes his starting point, is nothing but an outpouring of joy to his God.
A celebration of the fruits of harvest is one of the oldest forms of man’s offering of thanks to his maker. It is interesting to record that, apart from Christmas Carol services, Harvest Thanksgiving is one of the one most popular services in the church’s calendar. This is true even in the most urban of parishes where the majority of the congregation have never visited a working farm. Lustily, we sing about ploughing the fields when most of us wouldn’t have the first clue as to how to use a plough. It may be that the idea of saying thank you to God for something tangible is easier and more satisfying than offering gratitude for things that are more vague and nebulous. It may be that the fruits of the harvest, often displayed in great profundity in our churches, give a real, physical sense of making an offering to God. It may be that the knowledge that the vegetables, fruit and flowers will be distributed to nursing homes, foodbanks etc. actively demonstrates a visible perception of charitable giving. Equally, it may be the well-loved hymns, give it an impression of homeliness. There is, of course, after all, an embracing awareness, a deeply ingrained feeling that is rarely if ever analysed, that there is a God who is a bountiful provider of the fruits of the earth and the seas. It still feels right to affirm our unity with nature, and to remember that even in the days of tinned and frozen foods, that we are entirely dependent on the harvest of the land.
If, as I premised, the idea of offering thanks to God for the fruits of the harvest are as old as antiquity, then, by contrast, the modern Harvest Thanksgiving service is relatively new. If it hadn’t been for a Victorian vicar in Cornwall, there probably wouldn’t be harvest thanksgivings in any of our churches. The Revd Robert Hawker, for forty-one years Vicar of Morwenstow on the wild Cornish coast, is said to have initiated the modern Harvest Thanksgiving. Yet, long before this, during the Middle Ages, the church had a form of harvest service. It was called Lammas, a corruption of Loaf Mass. This was held on the first day in August, before the beginning of harvesting had really begun. Each farmer cut one sheaf of corn, and the flour from those sheaves was made into one enormous loaf of bread. Everyone went in procession to their village church and the loaf was offered to God as the first results of the coming harvest. Later, when the crops were all safely gathered in, the farmer would throw a big party for all his workers and their families, celebrated with beer, cider and plenty of food. But these customs gradually died out and today many people are ignorant of Lammas. Yet Lammas is probably the origin of the Harvest Luncheon, or Harvest Supper; events still popular in many places. As the people migrated from the countryside to the newly developing towns of the Industrial Revolution they lost their interest in farms and crops. No longer did they plant and tend and reap and fish – they went to their local stores for their comestibles. Even in the villages the Lammas-tide celebrations went into decline.
Robert Hawker was acutely aware of the life-and-death importance of the harvest to his parishioners and he was convinced that the germination of wheat was a supernatural event. He liked the old customs and, despite criticism from neighbouring clergy who thought him most peculiar, he designed and held a special service in 1843, when everyone was invited to bring their produce as a way of saying thank you to God. Thereafter he urged his parishioners each year to come to church for Harvest Thanksgiving. And so the idea caught on. Along with the service, the traditional lessons, hymns, and fruity decorations, went a Harvest Supper with an abundant supply of food and drink. Inevitably the Vicar sang silly songs to round off the proceedings. So popular was this Harvest service that it became accepted across the whole nation and bred a form of devotee; individuals who, rather like train-spotters, would come from far and wide and do the rounds of country churches during the harvest season. Even today, in many people’s eyes, harvest festival, as it is commonly, if erroneously, called, ranks as one of the church’s important, special days.
But how relevant is this historic act of thanksgiving in the 21st century? You only have to go into a modern supermarket and see the wide variety of food on display – food from every corner of the world. Today few people live or work on farms and fewer fish the seas. Most live in complete ignorance about what actually goes on in agriculture, and, to a lesser extent, horticulture. These people are unaware to say whether, in any year, there’s been a good harvest or a bad one. Even those who live in towns and cities within largely rural areas will read nothing in their local newspapers to tell them whether local farmers have had satisfactory harvests. So, is Harvest Thanksgiving really very meaningful today and why do we continue with this annual service? Living, as we do, on an island that is dependent in so many ways on the harvest of land, forest and sea we should, above all others, appreciate the need to thank God for his abundant providence. But, the true significance is not that we reflect on our various harvests, but that we re-affirm and re-cultivate the Christian virtue of thankfulness. Through the symbolism of Harvest, we remember to give thanks. The purpose of today’s service is not to wallow in the nostalgia of Robert Hawker’s first Harvest Thanksgiving, or even to hark back to a keeping of Lammas-tide, but to give thanks. We must pause in the daily round, the common task: pause and say, ‘Thank you! Thank you for all those good things that have come our way this year.’
Now, thankfulness is an attitude central to the Christian belief. Our first reading from Deuteronomy was part of Moses’ main address to the people of Israel. The occasion was the harvest pilgrimage festival when the worshippers gave thanks for God’s generosity, his gift of land which produced food abundantly, a land, we are told, ‘flowing with milk and honey’. Moses urged the people to be thankful. The great medieval mystic, Meister Eckhardt, said, ‘If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.’ It’s an easy prayer to remember. To say, ‘Thank you’, is simple and straight-forward. But, if the truth be told, it’s a prayer we so often forget. I have noticed in our own pew sheet, every week the prayer section is full of requests for help and assistance from God, yet very little in the way of thankfulness.
Yet, is it enough simply to feel thankful for our blessings and say ‘thank you’? Well, on one level certainly, it is enough, if that ‘thank you’ comes from the heart. But, on another level it may be just enough, but it’s hardly a complete fulfilment of what thanksgiving is all about. Thanksgiving is both a mental attitude and a physical response; it’s both faith and works. The writer of the Epistle of James said, in effect, ‘Faith without works is dead’ (James 2: 14-17). Some verses in Leviticus note that the ancient Hebrews were told to leave the remnants of their harvest for the poor and the stranger in their midst. The harvest thanksgiving in Israel wasn’t complete if the people gathered up all their crops and kept it all for themselves. Gratitude without sharing was no gratitude at all.
Integrated within this attitude of thankfulness and gratitude was another Jewish principle, that of the Jubilee. The Jubilee was celebrated every fifty years. In that year land was returned to its rightful and original owners, financial debts were remitted and slaves were freed. The people of Israel were told to forgive all debts and obligations of service to one another, and to allow every citizen to reclaim their land and property, free of all liability. The fundamental principle behind this fifty-year anniversary was that land was a sacred possession belonging to God. As such, it was not to be separated from God’s people, to whom it was originally assigned. Imagine what such a practice might do to our real estate markets or to the banking companies that rely so heavily on credit card debt and mortgage repayments. Our materialistic, secular culture elevates ‘getting’ over ‘giving’ to an inordinate degree. When Christmas comes the first thing children, and adults, ask one another is, ‘What did you get?’ No one ever thinks to ask, ‘What did you give?’
If we can remember that we are celebrating thanks-giving, and not thanks-getting; if we can reclaim the attitude and actions expressed in the ancient Hebrew celebrations which rejoiced in the harvest and remembered the needs of the poor and the stranger; if we can recapture the Jubilee sentiment of forgiving one another our accumulated debts, perhaps then, and only then, can we honestly say with Meister Eckhardt that a simple prayer of ‘thank you’, honestly expressed in word and in deed, is enough. In fact, it will be more than enough. Abundant and overflowing with grace our love will be made manifest. So, let us thank God for life; thank God for food; thank God for family and friends; thank God for the opportunity of living our lives in this rich and beautiful land, a land that could be said to be ‘flowing with milk and honey’. Let us thank God for being able to express our gratitude in acts of love, sharing and giving. Only then will we be able to gather in church, stand before God and, like the valleys that stand so thick with corn, and with the Psalmist, laugh, and sing.