John 7: v1-5 & 37-40
Not so many years ago, a shopping trip to the greengrocers would reveal a small assortment of locally grown produce – various root and leaf vegetables, a selection of, pears, bananas, oranges and possibly some plums, the odd melon, pineapple or coconut.
The vegetables tended to be those which you could grow in the garden, greenhouse or allotment – though perhaps delivered a few weeks earlier than you could expect from home-grown produce. Everything had its season, and one could look forward with eager anticipation to the first strawberries of summer, or the arrival of the cauliflower, cucumber or tomatoes. This seasonality in the food that we ate meant that each season held its own delights for the lover of fresh food. But don’t things change? 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 – even if at times the West has exploited these smaller producers. But it does mean for children growing up today the whole concept of a Harvest Festival really doesn’t mean as much as perhaps 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. Not so of course in some countries. We’ve all seen those horrific television pictures of the problems some African countries have had 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 conditions are favorable and sufficient crop is harvested to ensure that the family will not go hungry through the winter months. For in countries such as these, there is little chance of a shortfall being made up for by imported produce – other than and charitable aid which might come after the peoples’ plight has reached the eyes and ears of the world’s media. So if there is no really defined time in late September when we can breath 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? 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? It doesn’t even help us much if we look back at the history of the festival, I’m afraid. 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 Eucharest bread on August 1st, Lammas day. When the harvest had been gathered, “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 to the farmhouse and kept there until the next harvest supper.
Nowadays, harvest is usually observed late September or early October – a tradition that I was surprised to learn only goes back as far as the middle of the last century and curtesy of a Cornish vicar. And sad to say, the corn dolly is still in evidence in the decorations of some churches – a rather unwelcome remembrance of harvest’s pagan past. This is all a bit depressing isn’t it. 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. To understand the real significance of this festival, it seems we have to go back much further – back to the real roots of our Christian faith within the Old Testament and among the Jewish people, and their relationship with their 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’s constant provision for them and also allowing them to return by way of 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 their God and ask for forgiveness and cleansing. We know that they 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 this Sunday. The first was the Feast of Weeks, which we read about in Leviticus 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 and lasted 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 a reminder of the time that the people lived in tents after the Lord brought them out of Egypt and led them toward the promised land. The festival included a ceremony in which water was poured out and prayers made for good rains for the coming season. It’s also suggested that it was during such a ceremony that Jesus stood up and declared “Whosoever is thirsty should come to me and drink. As the scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in me, streams of life-giving water will pour out from his heart. (John 7:37-38) Can 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 is difficult to relate to the Victorian print depicting harvests of old, and Constable’s ‘Haywain’ is only a fading copy on the wall, and so many inner-city children wouldn’t recognise peas or broad beans if they saw them growing in a field, maybe we should be looking for a deeper spiritual meaning. In this way the offering we bring, the fruit and vegetables, the beautiful flowers and foliage which decorate our chapels 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 – there are so many things in our lives that we should be grateful for. But Jesus’ words in John’s gospel remind us that our needs are not just met by a constant supply of brocoli and sweetcorn. Jesus had a way of taking the ordinary things of life and bringing out of them a tremendous truth. On the occasion referred to in our reading water from Siloams pool was solemnly offered in the temple – possibly as I’ve mentioned a rite invoking God’s help in bringing the refreshing rain to end the long summer drought. 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 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. 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 God offers to his people, in the same way that the people of Israel used those two festivals to thank Him not only for the provision of a sufficient harvest, but also for the fact that their God was constantly acting in their best interests – that His love for His people could look beyond all the bad things that they did, all the times that they strayed from following him sincerely, and still provide for their needs.
For that reason I have included among the usual gifts on the table, a glass of water – to remind us of the spiritual food without which we could not function as effective Christians. For it was the gift of the living water, the Holy Spirit, to the believers in Acts that was the starting point, the birth, of the church, and without which we wouldn’t be sitting here and singing hymns of thanks to God for his love for us. So it is that 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 food to 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 God and His people.