Harvest-time has been celebrated from earliest times. Around 1280BC, on their release from slavery in Egypt, the Jews were commanded to “celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the firstfruits of crops you sow”. In England, thanks have been given for successful harvests since pagan times.
An early harvest festival used to be celebrated at the beginning of the harvest season on 1 August and was called Lammas, meaning ‘loaf Mass’. Farmers made loaves of bread from the fresh wheat crop, and these were given to the local church as the Communion bread during a special service thanking God for the harvest.
More commonly, harvest has been celebrated when “all is safely gathered in”. The traditional Harvest festival is held on the Sunday nearest the Harvest Moon. This is the full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox (22 or 23 September). The modern British tradition of celebrating Harvest Festival in churches began in 1843, when the Revd Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall, and many of our harvest hymns and customs date from the Victorian era.
With supermarkets selling foods from across the world, the link with harvest has weakened. We take for granted that everything will be available on demand, and it is perhaps more difficult to remember that “all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above”, and thus to thank God for his goodness.
There would be no harvest without sowing, so let’s not forget the farmers and growers on whom we depend. And their work would be useless without the sun and rain we take for granted. So thank God for the harvest!
Just as we look forward to harvest, so Christians await a different sort of harvest. As the seed of the gospel is sown week by week, so we pray that it will germinate, take root in people’s lives and bring forth a rich harvest of people trusting and following God. That is of course the meaning of the well-known Parable of the Sower told by Jesus.