Harvest Festival is probably the most ancient religious festival in the history of mankind. Men and women have been thanking the gods or God at harvest time since the Stone Age some fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago - or maybe longer - when some hunter-gatherers settled down and planted a few seeds, a few vines and fruit trees, and became the first farmers. From that time on, they began to rely for food more and more on what they could grown in their rudimentary fields, rather than on what animals they could kill with their flint-tipped spears. If the crops failed, they starved; if they produced an abundance of food, the people were assured of survival through the coming winter months, and there was great rejoicing. As a result, the most important pagan festivals of the year took place at seed-time and harvest, especially at harvest-time, when men and women everywhere either thanked the gods for provided them with the fruits of the earth so generously that they could face the immediate future without fear, or begged them to be a bit more generous next year. If they didn’t want everyone to die of hunger in the meanwhile. Since basic human needs did not change with the advent of the Christian faith, people everywhere continued to thank God for his goodness at harvest time, and Harvest Festival was regarded as being almost as important, as the great festivals of Christmas and Easter; and this continued to be so right up to the last century, when the success or failure of the crops still meant life or death for many people. For instance, the failure of the potato crop in Ireland in 1845 caused a famine, which killed thousands of people there, and forced thousands more to emigrate to America. There they founded the Irish lobby, as it has come to be called, which was destined to provide Mr Gerry Adams and the IRA with the wherewithal to blow up as many people as possible on their innocent way to work in Belfast, London, and elsewhere in our own benighted century.
But today things have changed. A few of us still come together once a year in a nostalgic kind of way to proclaim loudly in song that ‘We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land’ even though most us us wouldn’t know the difference between a plough and a harrow, even if we were introduced to them both by their Christian names; while the nearest we ever get to scattering seeds about the place is in our back gardens with a packet of wall-flower seeds or marigolds in our hand. Meanwhile, as for believing that they need to be fed and watered by God’s almighty hand, such a thought never crosses our mind, we rely instead on a watering can and a packet of Growmore. If that is the attitude of those of us, who still go to church from time to time, the attitude of those who don’t is summed up in the apocryphal story of the country Vicar who, surveying his garden in all its June glory, said to his old gardener, “Are not the works of God wonderful when aided by the efforts of man?” To which the old boy replied, “Arrgh, but you should ‘ave seen it when I left it all to ‘im.” That is a flippant story, but it illustrates the change in our attitude to the natural world which has taken place in recent times. If the crops fail today, most of us don’t even know that they have done so; wheat is imported from Canada, potatoes from Egypt, the price of greens goes up by a few pence a pound, but we still go to Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s and buy strawberries from Israel and mangoes from Thailand, and our lives are hardly affected. The only people who suffer are the farmers, but since they all seem to run around the place in Land Rovers or Volvos, we don’t cry ourselves to sleep over their misfortune.
What does all this imply? That we have realised at last that Harvest Thanksgiving is nonsense - a thoroughtly pagen Festival - which we should cease to celebrate forthwith? On the contrary, I think that it may imply the exact opposite: namely, that we should allow the ancient wisdom of the pagan past, let alone the wisdom of nearly two thousand years of Christian thanksgiving to God at harvest time, to remind us, not just of the importance of the harvest, vitally important as that still is to the people of nine-tenths of God’s world, but of something even more fundamental, which we forget at our peril: namely, that, however materially secure we may feel - no longer subject to the vagaries of the crops, the weather, fear of bubonic plague, or the thousand-and-one other hazards our ancestors lived with - we are still ultimately dependent upon God for almost everything that matters - for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, as the Prayer of General Thanksgiving in the old Book of Common Prayer used so splendidly to have it, and for the air we breathe, the earth we walk on, the food we eat, and such miraculous gifts as that of consciousness and indeed life itself, all of which we tend to take completely for granted, as though we were immortal. But we are not. Neither is our latter-day, western, industrialised, technologically and scientifically self-assured society.
Like comparable societies in the past - Assyrian society, Egyptian society, Greek society, Roman society, all of which seemed to be eternal in their day - ours too will probably collapse, as they collapsed. Writing in the 1970’s, an American philosopher said this of western society in this century. ‘The First World War was the beginning of the end of the bourgeous civilization of Europe. It would be superfluous to take the outbreak of that war, as Marxists do, as signifying merely the bankruptcy of capitalism. August, 1914, was a much more human debacle than that. It revealed that the apparent stability, security and material progress of society had rested, like everything human, upon the void. European man came face to face with himself as a stranger. When he ceased to be contained and sheltered within a stable social and political environment, he saw that his rational and enlightened philosophy could not long console him with the assurance that it answered the question: What is man?’ In fact, he no longer knew who he was or where he was going; all his certainties had been destroyed, and all his securities mocked by events. A glance today at the war in Bosnia, the genocide in Ruanda, famine in the Sudan, drug-addiction and violence in the West, and the emergence of such new and lethal viruses as the AIDS virus and that which surfaced at a place called Ebola in Africa and killed numbers of people, is enough to show that the words of that American philosopher are as relevant today as they were twenty years ago; and if that is the case, so is Harvest Festival as relevant today at it was in the Stone Age.
For harvest Festival is about the radical insecurity of man and the enormous goodness of God - something which the heathen in his blindness knew perfectly well, as he bowed down to wood and stone but which our world in its blindness has forgotten as it bows down to supermarkets, banks, insurance companies, the dollar, the deutschmark, and the Japanese yen. ‘We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,’ may not be the most profound hymn in the English language - or is its original German for that matter, from which a mid-Victorian lady named Jane Montgomery Campbell translated it into English - but as we celebrate Harvest Festival, I can find no fault with two of its lines. ‘All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his love.’ Our only true security is vested in the love of God. if he doesn’t exist - or exists and does not love us - then life is indeed a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing, and Macbeth was right. But he does exist, and the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, the first-fruit of a greater harvest than that which we celebrate today, is the ground of our knowledge both of his existence and of his unfathomable love.