It seems odd to me that we celebrate harvest festival in October, when Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is already under way. Surely, it could be argued, the right time to give thanks for the harvest is when the hot sun is beating down upon the cornfields. Although seedtime and harvest have been with us for millennia and people have marked the gathering-in of the crops in a variety of ways, the harvest festival as we know it today – or perhaps remember from our childhood – has been around for less than 200 years.
It dates from a time when farmers would call upon as many extra pairs of hands as possible to help with what was still essentially a manual operation. In some places it would have been assisted in part by some of the early mechanical devices that could be pulled across the field by the same horses that had drawn the plough earlier in the year.
In many villages, however, it came down to a man wielding a scythe and an army of helpers gathering, binding and standing up the corn once it was cut … to say nothing of the threshing that would be done later. When the last load was ceremonially brought from the field, many weeks would have passed and September be nearing its end by the time people could at last ‘come and be thankful that all was safely gathered in.’
The advance of technology has removed the need for the whole community to be involved in harvest and the general population has become distant from the source of its food. One consequence of this is the challenge faced by the modern pastor to find a harvest theme to which his/her flock can relate.
Of course God has His own agenda when it comes to harvest. Food is no problem; indeed the reader of the woe-laden prophecy of Amos may express surprise when coming to its end to find “the reaper will be overtaken by the ploughman and the planter by the one treading grapes.” (Amos 9:13). There will be so much food that there won’t be time to gather it before it’s time to plant the next crop. But it’s not all about food; God is looking for a richer crop.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians about generosity, suggesting that the more they gave to the needy around them, the greater would be their harvest of righteousness (2 Cor. 9:6-11). And in case we’re wondering just what that harvest might look like, Paul provided a helpful list in another of his letters (Galatians 5:22-23). John, too, wrote in his gospel about a spiritual harvest (John 4:34-38). Here Jesus reflected the harvest we’re familiar with, as He said, “The one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.” He wasn’t referring to a food harvest, but to the harvest of souls for which purpose he had come to earth.
I recall working many years ago for a company making harvesting and crop storage equipment. In his office, the MD had a notice asking, “Have you brought the solution, or are you just part of the problem?” The same thought transposes well to this narrative: “Are you one of my reapers, or are you just part of the crop (possibly rotting in the field)?”