Autumn is the only season that the Church marks with a festival directly related to a particular time of the year. Of course we relate Christmas with winter and Easter with spring; but these are cultural associations not directly connected with the focus of the feast.
However, in our urban context we’re less sure what to make of the festival of Harvest and how to mark it. In the East Midlands village of my childhood I can well remember the sights and smells of a rural Harvest festival, and the Harvest supper in the village hall that most of the community turned out for. This experience felt connected and properly communal, but it didn’t prepare me well for celebrating Harvest in any of the urban contexts where I’ve exercised my ministry. The school assembly favourite “cauliflowers fluffy and cabbages green” didn’t really seem to evoke much for children in Sunderland who dutifully sang about their least favourite foods without much sense of thanksgiving for the bounty of creation!
Harvest can be a powerful reminder of what, in an urban context, most of us have become disconnect- ed from: our dependence on the natural world and cycles of planting, growth and gathering, with each stage involving its particular combinations of human endeavour, patience and dependence on conditions outside of our control. Theologically we’re reminded that nothing grows without the seed that falls into the earth and dies so that it might yield a rich harvest.
However, I’ve also come to recognise a here and now element of an urban Harvest that relates more particularly to our experience and context. Harvest can be a festival of place, connecting us with where we live and the people who live and work in our place. It can also connect us with the Lord who is here, whose Spirit is with us.
The church where Jo worked in the City of London’s ancient parish of Billingsgate kept alive the connections with the fish market with a Fish Festival for Harvest. This inspired me to think about how we might use the festival of Harvest to connect with our local businesses, so last year at All Saints we decided to invite them to our service and bring something representing their trade. With coffee roasters, florists, artists, butchers and brewers it became of festival of local craft, commerce and creativity – the work of human hands and hearts as well as the fruits of the earth. But most of all it brought harvest home to us, to our place and the people we share it with.
This year I’m looking forward to beginning my ministry amongst you at Harvest-tide and taking this as an opportunity to begin to discover the fruits of this place where we are glad to be. Thomas Merton said “It is essential to experience all the times and moods of one good place.” I’m excited about this adventure of coming to know the particularities of this place, in all its times and moods; to come to know it as a place of encounter, of presence, of gift.
“The Lord is here” is a central conviction of Christian faith. The Incarnation is the truth of God known in one place and time so that God can also be known in each place and time. God continues to dwell amongst us – to ‘pitch a tent’ with us, to ‘tabernacle’ amongst us (John 1.14) Amongst the many rich associations of John’s language is a connection with the Jewish Harvest Festival of Tabernacles (sukkōt). The Jewish feast has a double focus – marking the ingathering of the harvest and God’s provision in the midst of the fragility of exodus. The tabernacle (sukkah) refers to a small fragile structure that evokes both the temporary dwellings of farmers in the fields during harvest and the ‘tents’ in which the people lived on their long journey to the promised land.
During the festival of sukkōt faithful Jews build a temporary tabernacle and spend time in it as a vivid meditation on these twin themes, remembering that in fragility, both of journey and growth, we are called to deeper dependence on God. This harvest we might share their meditation, and give thanks for the place God has called us to be; and how God is known here in all its times and moods.
With joy and peace, David Stephenson