It may be surprising to learn that the annual harvest festival service, so much a ‘standard’ feature of the church year, is actually a relatively recent innovation. There have, of course, been rituals and celebrations associated with the annual harvest for millennia, and in all parts of the world, both Christian and as part of other faith traditions. The Harvest Festival as we have come to know it in the Church of England, however, has only been used since 1843. The following is from wikipedia…
“The modern British tradition of celebrating Harvest Festival in churches began in 1843, when the Reverend Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall. Victorian hymns such as “We plough the fields and scatter”, “Come ye thankful people, come” and “All things bright and beautiful” but also Dutch and German harvest hymns in translation helped popularise his idea of harvest festival and spread the annual custom of decorating churches with home-grown produce for the Harvest Festival service.“
The harvest festival is of course as much a product of the present day as it is an ancient phenomenon, whether celebrated in churches or in other contexts. What was once a very direct response to a very obvious sense of relief in an agricultural community is now also marked in urban and suburban settings where the day to day experience of harvest is much more remote.
At St John’s, even though we are surrounded by farming communities in the neighbouring villages, our harvest festival is as much about supporting the local food bank and in looking further afield to impoverished communities around the globe as it is to the more obvious local farming activities.
The purpose remains the same, however: to give thanks for all we have, and also to pause and reflect that many people struggle to find sufficient food to eat. Contemporary awareness of the whole planet, and of environmentalism in particular also means that we use Harvest Festival as a time to reflect upon how we can be better stewards of a world that has been damaged by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and habitat destruction.
The whole of creation is vast, and beyond our full comprehension. We can, however, care for our small part of it, and remember that God has provided a wonderful and complex setting for us all to live and grow.