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ARC Home > Faiths and Ecology > Christianity > Harvest festival :

Ideas for Services Celebrating the Harvest

The Harvest Festival is one of the most popular in the Christian calendar. Yet there is no order of service for it in the Book of Common Prayer. The reason is simple: it is a relatively new invention.

It was the idea of a Reverend Rev R. S. Hawker, who in 1843 created a special service to celebrate the bringing in of the crops. His parishioners in Morwenstow in Cornwall enjoyed it so much that they insisted on having another "Harvest" Festival the following year. The idea soon caught on in rapidly industrialising Victorian Britain where increasing numbers of people were being cut off from the cycle of nature by living in the expanding cities. From its beginning it has been a romantic festival and this means it is now rather difficult to know what to do with it.

In a world of terrible starvation matched against the obscenity of butter and wheat mountains, it can be hard to know how to celebrate getting yet more out of the earth than we did last year. Our increase in harvest is the result of eliminating wildlife and the rooting up of age-old hedgerows; most of our cheap meat and eggs come from factory farming; our rivers are polluted by insecticides and chemical fertilizers which have washed from the fields; and we are increasingly running the danger of changing the biology of food forever with GM crops. So can we still pretend that the wheat, fruits, eggs and other things that we bring to church are the fruitful signs of our partnership with God and His creation?

In many cases, we are so removed from how our food is made - and the true costs to our world that Harvest seems to have become little more than a celebration of supermarkets or the multi-nationals.Yet the need to give thanks for our food and for the beauty of our world is still fundamental that despite all the problems and uncertainty, Harvest has kept its pull.

The themes each take one key idea and explore it. We would suggest you take those elements that make best sense for you, and combine them to make a special service for your own congregation.

1.0 Theme One: God the Creator

In the Creed we affirm our belief in God the Creator of Heaven and Earth. But what do we mean? Sometimes the way we speak about God as Creator makes Him sound like an absentee landlord. We can perhaps learn from Hindu thought, in which three aspects of the Divine make life possible: Brahma who brings each world to be; Vishnu who sustains it and struggles against the evil that threatens to overwhelm it; and Shiva who destroys the worlds at the end of their time. Christians do not see the creation in this cyclical way, but perhaps we need to remember how, once something has been created, it still needs sustaining and protecting or nurturing.

In considering God the Creator we also need to look at what role we have. The Bible depicts humans almost as co-creators with God, ruling on behalf of God but only so long as we remain faithful to what he wants for the world. This tension between free will and God’s will underlies all of humanity's dealing with God.

What are we to make of the purpose of the rest of creation? Millions of years have passed in the life of the planet. Evolution and geological forces have created species, mountains and valleys that no human being ever saw. Can we believe that all existence was made solely for us?

There is a Jewish saying that nobody should read the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis while sitting alone, for there are so many unanswered and unanswerable questions that they would be driven insane.

1.1 BIBLICAL READINGS:

Old Testament: Job chapters 38-39. This dramatic section shows that all life has meaning in its own right because it is known, sustained and loved by God.

New Testament: John I: 1-5 and 9-14. The role of Christ as Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer helps us to see that the world's creation, existence and purpose are interlinked. Creation is not a mere stage for humanity to perform upon. It is part of the cast.

THE RAINBOW COVENANT

When God brought Noah and his ark to dry land he made a covenant never to destroy life like that again, and gave the rainbow so this would never be forgotten. Now we need a human covenant to promise that we will stop destroying this beautiful earth. Unlike God we cannot bring back the creatures that we make extinct.

Brothers and sisters in creation,
We covenant this day with you and with all creation yet to be;
With every living creature and all that contains and sustains you;
With all that is on earth and with the earth itself;
With all that lives in the waters and with the waters themselves;
With all that flies in the skies and with the sky itself.
We establish this covenant,
That all our powers will be used to prevent your destruction.
We confess that it is our own kind who put you at risk of death.
We ask for your trust.
And as a symbol of our intention
We mark our covenant with you by the rainbow.
This is the sign of the covenant between ourselves
And every living thing that is found on the earth.


1.2 PRAYER AND PROSE

"My sisters the birds, much are you beholden to God your Creator, and always and in every place should you praise him. He has given you the freedom to fly wherever you wish and he has clothed you so fully. Moreover he preserved your kind in the ark of Noah so that you might not die out. Again, you are beholden to him for the very air that he has given to you. Furthermore, you do not sow nor reap yet God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains from which you drink, He gives you mountains and valleys as places of refuge and the tall trees in which to build your nests. Because you do not know how to sew or spin, God clothes you and your young: you can see how much God loves you in that he gives you so much. Guard yourselves therefore my sisters the birds from the sin of ingratitude and be ever mindful to give praise to God." From The Little Flowers of St. Francis.

1.3 POSSIBLE HYMNS

* "He's got the whole world in his hand"
* "Let us with a gladsome mind"
* "O Lord of every shining constellation"
* "Every star shall sing a carol"
* "Immortal, invisible, God only wise,"
* "Praise the Lord! Ye heavens, adore him"
* "Morning has broken"


2.0 Theme Two: Are We Stewards or Tyrants?

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, humanity is viewed as God's final and finest creation, set apart from all the rest. This is reinforced in the story of Noah with the command: "Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth. Be the terror and the dread of all the wild beasts and all the birds of heaven" (Gen. 9:2.). It is this strand in Christianity that has been accused of fostering the attitudes of exploitation and domination that have caused our current environmental crisis.

The concept of stewardship has always been tied in with that of mastery. After all, Noah did build an ark to help save all species. And when God makes his covenant after the flood, it is made with: "you, your descendants after you and with every living creature to be found with you, birds, cattle and every wild beast with you: everything which came out of the ark, everything which lives on the earth." (Gen. 9:8-10.).

One of the dangers of modern thinking is how the rest of Creation is seen as subservient to our needs. Some conservationists even argue that species should be preserved simply because they might be of use to us. This is dangerous because the corollary is that those things that are not “useful” have no right to exist. Christianity places humanity at the top of creation, but not at the top of meaning. God is the creator and under God all are equal in significance. We need to develop a careful Christian understanding of where God has placed us, and what that means in terms of our responsibilities.

There is a nice story from the Jewish commentaries on the Garden of Eden. Adam, master of all he saw, was walking in the Garden and wanted to eat of the fruit. He stretched out his hand to pluck an apple, but the branch moved away from him out of reach. He tried the same with a pear and the same happened again. This went on two or three times. Then a voice spoke. "First water and tend the trees, then you may eat of the fruit."

2.1 BIBLICAL READINGS.

Old Testament: Genesis 9: 1-17; Psalm 8. The Noah story captures the ambivalence of the Biblical tradition towards the rest of creation. It recognises the special role of humanity to protect the rest of creation, but also recognises that God cares for every living creature, not only human beings. Humanity is given the "right" to multiply and fill the earth, but God makes it obvious that this should not be at the expense of other living creatures. God has kept his part of the covenant but humanity has not. Hence the Rainbow covenant (See box) Psalm 8 is a beautiful summary of how we are to care for all that God has set beneath our feet for it is only in relationship to this that we have any significance. Destroy creation and there is no humanity.

New Testament: Matthew 6: 25-34. This reading continues the theme, and rejects the avarice of materialism and exploitation.

2.2 PRAYER AND PROSE

"For this I thank you, that you have created me in your image, and placed your wonders under my hands, so that I may know them and rejoice in the works of your Creation. I pray to you, eternal God, give me understanding and wisdom, that I might not misuse your creation but make use of it only for my needs, for the good of my neighbour, myself and my family. Give me gratitude for all your gifts, so that my mind does not say: 'This is mine, I have bought it. I will possess it alone. I am noble with it, majestic and beautiful; It belongs to me because of this honour and glory.' All this comes from the devil and the grievous fall of Adam." Jacob Boehme. The Way to Christ.

2.3 POSSIBLE HYMNS

* "Lord, bring the day to pass"
* "God who created this Eden of earth"
* "Give to our God immortal praise"
* "Let us with a gladsome mind"
* "O worship the King, all glorious above"
* "God in his love lent us this planet,"

3.0 Theme Three: Repentance and Salvation

It is traditional to bring gifts of the land – whether wheat, bread, grapes, wine, vegetables, eggs, baked beans or whatever - to church at Harvest-time to lay on the altar as a thanksgiving.

However, the issue is not that simple. In Matthew's Gospel (5:23-24) Jesus said: "So, then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering." Similarly St. Francis taught us to see all creation in terms of our brothers and sisters.

There is little doubt that the way we live and the demands we make on our environment today mean we are not reconciled with our brothers and sisters of creation. How can we be comfortable in bringing our harvest gifts, as if they are our right.

As Christians we need to repent for the damage we have done to the earth. Our destruction of the forests has meant the loss of topsoil formed over thousands of years; the silting up of rivers and estuaries; the growth of the deserts and the loss of some of the most beautiful wildernesses in the world. Our farming methods kill and hurt countless creatures through insecticides, chemicals and factory farming of various kinds. Our desire for cheap fuel has produced acid rain and our use of the oceans as rubbish dumps has meant that life everywhere is affected by pollution. In this context, how can we bring the Harvest gifts before the altar without first seeking reconciliation with nature?

So let us seek reconciliation with nature and God, for as Isaiah says:

'Shout for joy, you heavens, for Yahweh has been at work! Shout aloud, you earth below! Shout for joy, you mountains, And you, forest and all your trees! For Yahweh has redeemed Jacob and displayed his glory in Israel.' (Isaiah 44:23)

3.1 BIBLICAL TEXTS

Old Testament. Hosea 4:1-3. Here we see the effect of human faithlessness. Not only do our sins ruin the world of personal relationships and the moral integrity of the country, but they destroy the rest of creation. The prophet speaks of a great drought afflicting the land, caused by humanity's faithlessness, yet the whole of creation. Today we can see that disasters like pollution have taken an appalling toll – all of nature suffering because of our greed and exploitation.

New Testament. Romans 8:18-25. John 17:20-26. The Romans text speaks of Creation 'groaning in travail', because humans have frustrated the design of nature to fulfil God's will. But now, through the salvation and reconciliation made possible by Jesus, we can work to fulfil God's will. This is beautifully expressed by Paul in his letter to the Colossians: "As he is the Beginning, he was first born from the dead, so that he should be first in every way; because God wanted all perfection to be found in him and all things to be reconciled through him and for him, everything in heaven and everything on earth, when he made peace by his death upon the cross." (Col. 18-20.) The reading from John echoes this - that all creation will be drawn into unity with the Father through the Son and thus find peace.

3.2 PRAYER AND PROSE

Lord, may I love all thy creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. May I love the animals: thou hast given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Let me not harass them; let me not deprive them of their happiness; let me not work against thy intent. For I acknowledge unto thee that all is like an ocean - flowing and blending - and that to withhold any measure of from anything in thy universe is to withhold that same measure from thee. (Adapted from The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky.)

3.3 POSSIBLE HYMNS

"I bind unto myself today"
"Father all-powerful, thine is the kingdom,"
"The Lord is King! Lift up thy voice,"
"Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,"
"Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,"


4.0 Theme Four: The New Heaven and the New Earth

In the Book of Revelation, John paints a frightening picture of the end of Time, when all that which now exists will be swept away, with God as final arbiter. God after all is the Alpha and the Omega: the Beginning and the End. This vision has inspired two different reactions.

The first inspired some people to see that through their own lives and through the power of the Holy Spirit, the old world can indeed pass away and a new world of love and compassion can be created. This kind of vision – of humans as “co-creators” inspired all the great Christian reformers such as Shaftesbury, as well as activists like trade unionists who sprang from the church.

In the second understanding of the end of the old world, there is a belief in 'the elect', who alone would be saved. This has led some people to wish for the end of the world in order to 'teach the rest a lesson'. It is a vengeful understanding, fed by much in the Book of Revelation, although bearing little relationship to the Christ who died upon the cross and prayed 'Father, forgive them',

In the past, the ending of all life was seen as the sole responsibility of God. But now with nuclear warfare and high impact environmental destruction we have the capacity to do this ourselves. Suddenly the apocalypse is not something we await from God in the fullness of time, but something which we are already enacting, In this context, it is vital for Christians to restate that love not greed should rule the world and that it is not for us to determine its demise.

4.1 BIBLICAL TEXTS

Old Testament. Isaiah 11: 1 Psalm 148. Jewish commentaries usually picture Adam and Eve as vegetarians in the Garden – the sense being that eating meat is a sign of the Fall. The picture in Isaiah of all sorts of creatures at ease with each other is a powerful one and reinforces the idea that if salvation has meaning it has to be for all God's creation. The future is not just good for human beings - symbolised here by a vulnerable child - but also for other creatures such as the lamb, the kid and the calf. Psalm 148 is a praise of creation – not just humans, but the whole of creation, including those manifestations - wild animals, birds and so on - that we are wantonly destroying.

New Testament. Matthew 25:31-46. James 5:1-18. Whether one is a sheep or a goats is determined by what one has done, in love, for the children of God. And the same criterion must apply to our treatment of our brothers and sisters in creation, as every day many of us are crucifying Christ in nature. In the epistle of James the message is clear that the Kingdom of God is love, and that nature is an instrument of God's justice and love. The text does not mean we have to see rainfall as a measure of morality - if so then the British at least could be assured of eternal bliss! What is important is that God works through the actions of the rains and the earth, the weak and the helpless.

4.2 PRAYER AND PROSE

“Good Lord, most high almighty. To you all praise is due. All glory, honour, blessing, belong alone to you. There is no man whose lips are fit to frame your name. Be praised then, my Lord God, in and through all your creatures, Especially among them, through noble Brother Sun, by whom you light our day; in his radiant splendid beauty he reminds us, Lord, of you. Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and all the stars; you have made the sky shine in their lovely light. In Brother Wind be praised, my Lord, and in the air, in clouds, in calm, in all the weather moods that cherish life. Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water; she is most useful, humble, precious, pure.

And Brother Fire, by whom you lighten night; how fine is he, how happy, powerful, strong. Through our dear Mother Earth be praised, my Lord, She feeds us, guides us, gives us plants, bright flowers And all her fruits. Be praised, my Lord, through us, When out of love for you we pardon one another. When we endure in sickness and in sorrow. Blessed are they who preserve in peace; from you, Most High, they will receive their prize. Be praised, my Lord, praised for our Sister Death, From whom no man alive can hope to hide; Wretched are they who die deep in their sin.And blessed those, Death finds doing your will. For them there is no further death to fear. 0 people! praise God and bless him, Give him thanks and serve him most humbly."
The Canticle of the Creatures by St. Francis. (Translation by Molly Reidy)

4.3 POSSIBLE HYMNS

* “Jesus shall reign where'er the sun"
* “There's a light upon the mountains, and the day is at the spring"
* “Jesus is Lord of all the earth"
* “At the name of Jesus"
* "The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended"


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