Did you get up in the early hours last Monday morning to see the eclipse of the harvest moon, glowing red? It was special this year, because it was the largest and closest full moon of the year. My husband got me up at 3.00am and I watched the tail end of the eclipse and saw the red moon. And I went straight back to bed.
For our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community, this week has been their harvest festival, Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, when they build shelters and live and eat in them. The materials used to make the booths represent the blessings of nature. Today is the last day, Hoshana Rabah, when there is a special service in the synagogue. It is regarded as the day for the final sealing of judgement which began at Rosh Hashanah, when the books recording the names of the righteous, and wicked and the intermediate were opened. So there is something there about the harvest of our lives over the last year. Would you get a good write-up for the harvest of your deeds?
And on Sunday evening last week, just as Sukkot was starting, I went to Durham Cathedral for the Evensong to mark the retirement of the Dean, Michael Sadgrove. The Cathedral was packed, and it was a splendid and joyous occasion. Michael was reflecting on his ministry in terms of harvest, particularly the last 12 years at Durham Cathedral.
You can see the roots of celebrating the harvest in the Old Testament, such as the reading from Joel that we had just now, but the form in which we celebrate it now goes back to 1843 when the Revd Robert Hawker held a service of harvest thanksgiving at his church in Morwenstow in Cornwall. It caught on very quickly.
Now, 172 years later, the world is very different. In an urban and industrial setting like Gateshead, we are cut off from the production of food on the land, apart from Harry who has an allotment and those who love gardening. Most of us have gone to the shops to buy our harvest gifts – I certainly did. And in some years, we have concentrated on tins to give to the Foodbank rather than fresh fruit and vegetables. The produce that we bring – some of it is local, from Harry’s allotment – but we have brought food that could have come from all over the world.
So why do we still need the harvest festival? You could argue that in the twenty-first century, maybe we don’t need to do it any more?
I think the harvest festival still has a place. For several reasons:
- We are thanking God that we have enough to eat – indeed, we have a great abundance, we often have more than we need. Thankfulness is one of the big themes at harvest: thank God for our food, thanking God for our ability to enjoy it, thanking God for all the fruits of creation that mean that we are clothed and fed, thanking God for the changing seasons and the wonders of creation. Thankfulness is central to our worship. This service, this Eucharist is about thanking God. Eucharist means thanksgiving. We thank God for his work in Creation. We thank Jesus Christ the Son for his work in Redemption and dying for us on the cross. We thank the Holy Spirit for the continuing work of breathing in us, guiding us and giving us life.
- In the end, it all goes back to God. It is God who makes the sun to shine and the rain to water the earth. We are dependent on God all our lives. And our harvest festival reminds us that without God, we cannot eat, we cannot live, we cannot survive.
- Though we may not have grown much produce ourselves, we are celebrating the harvest of the whole community, the harvest produced by the farmers all over the world who grow our food. We remember all those who help to put food on our plates, wherever they are. We need them all.
- The produce of our lives may not be fruit and veg – these days it is more likely to have been lives of service in industry, utilities, health and social care, business and trading, volunteering, raising families, working with our hands, working with our minds, working with our hearts. We bring to the altar the fruits of all our labour over many years.
- And to pick up the theme of Hoshana Rabah, we present to God the harvest of good deeds, all that we do in God’s name, and all that we are because we know God. Our readings today talk of godliness, contentment, unselfishness, not being obsessed with money, not worrying about food or drink or clothing, striving for the kingdom of God, rejoicing in all that God has given us. All of that we bring – our very selves.
- The Old Testament encouraged the people of God to bring the first fruits of their harvest as a gift to God. The harvest gifts that we have brought today may not be the first fruits, but they represent the good gifts that we receive from creation. They will go to the Changing Lives Hostel on Denmark Street. The hostel provides accommodation for homeless men and supports them to get back on their feet. So our harvest gifts will be used to feed people in need, but it also expresses our solidarity with those who are homeless and hungry. The gifts that we receive are not just for our own use, but for us to share with those in need.
So here we are – to give thanks, rejoice, remember and celebrate, to bring our gifts to God so that they may be used for the benefit of others, to bring our very selves to present to our Lord God. As the poet Edith Sitwell says in a poem about death: “… Nothing is lost. All in the end is harvest”.