Dwelling at Ditchingham, we were very close to the land, to the yearly round of the farming year, and harvest meant actually that: the crops being harvested, the fields bare again. When celebrating our harvest festival, we knew whether the crops had been gathered in early or late (one extremely bad year not until the end of the summer. I can still remember being in retreat at the end of August/beginning of September when they were finally able to start bringing the crops in. Even I could tell that they were past their best by then). We also had our own crops bringing the notion of harvest directly to our plates, as we were able to start eating our own tomatoes, raspberries, apples and so on. We knew whether it had been an abundant year, or a poor one.
Now I live in a city, I am separated from that direct link to harvest and the food we eat. That isn’t true of all city dwellers, many of whom have gardens, vegetable patches, allotments or fruit trees, which still bring some link to harvest. I have none of those (by choice), and I haven’t even got as far as blackberry picking in the last couple of years. Harvest no longer means produce that has been grown in the land around the convent, that I have seen, if not directly participated in. I very seldom see the fields; even when travelling, I am so often behind the wheel of a car that I cannot notice what is happening in the countryside. While this is my choice, it is also something of a loss, the lack of some direct link to harvest, to the food we eat. When we give thanks at harvest, I have no longer seen the fields being harvested as I could while I was at Ditchingham, and there is a separation in my thanksgiving that was not there before.
Of course, it is a choice, and one I chose and am happy with, but it is also something I am grateful for from my years in the countryside, that there was a richness there that I would not have had otherwise, a link with the land and the turning of the year that I would have missed out on. Yet, as the year turns, and, for me, autumn is heralded more by the drinks the cafes are offering than the ploughing of the fields, and completion of harvest, I am still aware that this is happening elsewhere. The leaves will turn, wherever you are; harvest happens wherever we live. The food we eat, whether apples from our own tree or ones we have bought, have still been harvested somewhere. The reality of harvest has hit us more the past couple of years, with worker shortages hitting the headlines. Yet wherever our food comes from, it is right to pause and give thanks on a regular basis, not only to God for providing the food, but to those who have worked to bring it to our plates. It may even help us value those workers more.
But this must be a lot easier to do if you are certain about where the next meal is coming from, if you know you will have enough money to buy food to eat. For those on a low income, who have lost jobs, for those in work who cannot earn enough to cover their bills, for those forced to choose between food and heat and/or going without food so that their children may eat, giving thanks takes on a whole lot more complexity. How to give thanks for something you can’t guarantee? I don’t have the answer, as it’s not a position I’ve ever been in, but it dies, and should, affect the way we celebrate harvest.
How to sing our favourite harvest hymns at a time when many pig farmers are having to face the possibility of culling their flocks? How to join in harvest celebrations when more people need to use food banks? How does the church celebrate harvest festival at a time when the incomes of many are being reduced, while their bills increase, with the knock-on effect that has on their livelihoods and the life chances of their children? (To say nothing about the potential increase in homelessness). Many churches will, no doubt, have included these issues, if only in the intercessions and in donating harvest produce. Somehow, though, we are called to hold these in balance: the absolute necessity of giving thanks to God for what we receive, and the equally vital necessity of holding the imbalance of income and opportunity in our awareness and our prayers. It is a balance that we are called to hold at all times of the year. To follow Jesus means to praise and thank God, for who God is and what we receive, yet we do this in a world that is imperfect, in a church that makes mistakes, on our earth where many suffer terribly, in an era where our climate is changing due to the way we live our lives. We come before Jesus offering our worship and thanksgiving, yet we must also hold before God the needs of our world, the needs of our local communities, the needs of the environment; however that happens, whatever it means for each of us in our daily lives.