The Reverend Roberts Steven Hawker was no ordinary priest. He talked to birds and kept a pet pig. He refused to wear black, opting instead for a purple three-quarter-length coat, with a fisherman’s jersey underneath, an indication of his concern for seafarers especially those shipwrecked on the shores of his parish of Morwenstow in Cornwall. He is best remembered for the introduction of the harvest festival. In September 1843 he posted an invitation to his parishioners to gather in the chancel of the church to thank God for “the bread of the new corn” and one hundred and eighty years ago tomorrow, he held his first harvest festival, with a service of Holy Communion using bread made from the newly harvested corn.
He may have had in mind the medieval tradition of Lammas Day, August 1st when it was customary to consecrate bread from the first-ripe corn for use at Holy Communion. Indeed the root meaning of Lammas is ‘loaf’ and ‘mass.’ A remnant of this tradition continues nowadays in Ballycastle’s Ould Lammas Fair.
Celebratory rituals associated with harvest have been part of human experience from ancient times, an acknowledgment of a dependence on a greater power. The bible tells us that this was especially true for the Israelites whose economy was largely agricultural. The owner of the grain harvest was required to present the first fruits of the crop to God before he himself could have any of it. The corners and margins of fields were not to be reaped nor the scatterings of grain on the ground collected; these belonged to the poor by right. (Leviticus 23). Thus the principles of harvest festival are established. The source is acknowledged and for people of faith that means thanking God.
But even for those of no faith it makes sense to acknowledge our dependence on Mother nature. Then there is the obligation to share the fruits of the harvest as we read in Deuteronomy: “At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied ...” This has nothing to do with being ‘charitable’ – it is an obligation to see that everyone is provided for, a point underlined in tomorrow’s epistle reading: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
The parables of Jesus reflect the rural scenes of his day and sometimes it is suggested that these agricultural themes are not well understood in modern, urban society. But it could also be said that it shows how out of touch we city dwellers have become with the natural world. We no longer work on the land, hunting and gathering have long been replaced by a trip to the supermarket or increasingly by food deliveries ordered online. As we become more and more detached from the source of all that makes life possible the less grateful we are for what we receive from God through nature. David Steindl-Rast, OSB suggests that gratitude does not come easily to us: “When I admit that something is a gift, I admit my dependence on the giver. This may not sound that difficult but there is something within us that bristles at the idea of dependence. We want to get along by ourselves. Yet a gift is something we simply cannot give to ourselves – not as a gift, at any rate, for what makes something a gift is precisely that it is given. And the receiver depends on the giver.” St Paul put it more directly: “For who considers you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1 Corinthians 4:7)