"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
October 3, 2007

Why Celebrate Harvest?

I‚Äôm a city person. I don‚Äôt much like farms and I tend to avoid the countryside (with the exception of wine-country). As for the suburbs, well the less said the better. Give me mountainous wilderness, beaches and forests, any day. Interestingly, as a child growing up in Sydney I visited the country more regularly than […]

I’m a city person. I don’t much like farms and I tend to avoid the countryside (with the exception of wine-country). As for the suburbs, well the less said the better. Give me mountainous wilderness, beaches and forests, any day. Interestingly, as a child growing up in Sydney I visited the country more regularly than most of my friends and through school and sport had a few opportunities to stay on farms. Moreover, my mother grew up on a farm and often illustrates life’s lessons with stories about farm life. As a young teenager I recall having an interest in the regular news programmes dealing with agriculture on the ABC.

But, the older I got, the more clear the appeal of city-life became and the countryside lost it’s charm. I saw that rural life was less about cute animals and more about industry Рoften with devastating environmental consequences Рand a social outlook I sometimes didn’t gel with. The final straw, (if you’ll pardon the pun) came with living in the UK, where the countryside was all too often simply a version of suburbia set amongst tractors and smelly barns.

Being an urbanite with no great personal passion for the ‘rural life’ celebrating the Church’s “Harvest Festival” presents something of a challenge. Namely, why bother? Harvest Sunday is a tradition in many churches, but the “it has always been done this way” argument is never a satisfactory reason for keeping any tradition alive. I’m only likely to be convinced about such practices if they have some relevance, or significance for where we are today. Having said that, I think harvest might have an important role to play in urban church life.

How do we understand and relate to concept and practice of Harvest? For a great many of us, the closest we get to agriculture is the meat, fruit and vegetable counters at our supermarket. Often, the goods we buy might have been shipped from all over the world, bringing us a bounty not constrained by seasonal limitations. Others of us may have a few herbs in a pot, or a more substantial work in a garden or allotment, but mostly we are not tied to the seasonal rural movements that created the tradition of Harvest festival.

There are three ways that harvest can be of useful and transformative use for all urbanites. First, as Wendell Berry suggests in What Are People For?, considering the idea of harvest can help us understand the rural ecosystem. We can add to that the insight from food writers like Anonio Carluccio, Jamie Oliver and others that eating on the basis of seasonal produce can educate us about better and healthier eating practices by weaning us off pre-prepared foods and making us pay more attention to the quality of what we eat. Finally, the marriage of these first two insights will connect us more deeply to better organic and sustainable farming practices that will have a transformative ecological impact.

All these are worthwhile issues, but are they specifically Christian insights? After all, the most important question about having a harvest celebration in church is not, is it a good idea, but, is it a Christian idea? It’s a point we must clarify, because all too often harvest is celebrated in a manner where it is difficult to distinguish if it is a celebration of God’s provision, or the benefit of the farming industry.

The key ethical insight of the doctrine of creation, of seeing that the Earth is God’s good work is that we are to enjoy the fruit of the soil and be good stewards. Protecting the environment is not the same as protecting farming. Sometimes, when I lived in the UK, it was hard not to wonder if a part of the harvest celebrations was really a celebration of the “English rural way of life.”

Is it the role of the church to provide a Sunday for this? After all, we are the church of Christ, not the church of the “traditional English way of life.” Moreover, we are all too often quick to point out the idolatrous tendencies of churches in other countries, like the US, who engage in self-congratulatory self-worship. It is not wrong to give thanks for a “lifestyle;” but, doing so always caries with it the risk of idolatry. Harvest celebrations should avoid this solipsistic tendency and make us aware that the rural is not the same as the natural and that there are important competing claims on God’s creation.

Many modes of farming, some with a long heritage, are no longer sustainable – either economically or ecologically. This reality often brings an enormous social cost to rural communities. The droughts in Australia (especially their impact on the Eastern rangelands) and the plight of farmers in India (a harsh lesson in regulation) stand out as examples.

Harvest is a perfect opportunity for the practice of meaningful compassion. Moreover, it can be an opportunity to engage in a conversation about the economic forces that drive some of the changes and create these pains. Maybe, it could even be a ground for some acts of social repentance?

Finally, the one thing that has all too often being missing from harvest celebrations I’ve seen has been what we could describe as a “spirituality of the soil.” I’m convinced that Jesus did not just use agricultural metaphors because they had cultural relevance. There is something in the organic cycles of life that has power to reveal truths to us about existence, ethics and spirituality (if we let it).

Whilst I’m opposed to the idea that urban living means disconnection from nature, I do accept that we urbanites need reminders of what it means to enjoy the natural realm and of what the realities of agriculture are. A failure to appreciate nature will impoverish us as people and a failure to appreciate agriculture will wreck our world.

Celebrating Harvest gives us the opportunity to look at both these things and hold them in tension.

[tags] Harvest Sunday [/tags]

Pete Lev 17 years ago

Thanks for these thoughts Fernando! Helpful stuff.
Interestingly this year I wasn’t asked to do any harvest services and haven’t seen many, but previous years have wrestled with making harvest connections for congregations in London. Yet I always felt that it needed to be more than collecting a few tins for the homless or the old people!

Paul 17 years ago

Arrhhh, chewing on me fresh organic low milage surrey farming straw, i agree that it can be a bit strange celebrating harvest when the harvest is global and most of what we eat comes from anywhere else but the UK. As a way of life it seems to be one that is in decline. What i do remember from my anglican childhood memories was the social good that came with harvest – the giving of food to the those in need in a way that struck me later of the grain/wine offerings of the OT.

Maybe as you suggest harvest now is more than just a time of the year but a way of recognising our way of life – how we as consumers drive a machine that is either trendy and expensive or mass produced and nutrionally challenged – where is the justice in that? I think grounding it in the dirt rather than turning it into some sort of spiritual version is an excellent suggestion – such a good one that i might suggest we add it to our liturgical calander at church.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Thanks guys – please blog about anything you might do in this direction. It’s an issue close to my heart and I’d love to see churches rethinking and re-engaging the tradition.

Organic 17 years ago

Hello from the US, I agree and would further point out that when Organic Saturday is factored in, it’s a slam dunk!!!

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