In 1843, the Revd RS Hawker, a parish priest in Cornwall, decided to hold a service in church to give thanks to God for the harvest. Secular celebrations of ‘harvest home’ had long been held but Hawker is usually credited with beginning what we now know as the Harvest Festival – an annual service of thanksgiving in church. (Hawker, a poet, was also the author of the Cornish patriotic anthem, ‘The Song of the Western Men’, published anonymously in 1826.) He adapted the older tradition of Lammas or ‘Loaf Mass’, when, in thanksgiving for the first-fruits of the wheat harvest (at the start of August) a fresh baked loaf made from the harvest was presented as part of the eucharist. This had been a traditional celebration, known to the Anglo-Saxons as Hlafmaesse.
In the 1940s, there was an attempt to revive the old Saxon agricultural festivals, including Plough Sunday and Rogation Sunday. Plough Sunday is the first Sunday of Epiphany, marking the end of the 12 days of Christmas and a return to work – the plough and seeds would be blessed to ensure a good harvest. Rogation seems to have its origins in Graeco-Roman religion where processions were held to invoke divine favour and the protection of crops. (The Latin word rogare means to ask.) Christian processions around the parish boundaries were made with prayers for God to bless the land. Some parishes still ‘beat the bounds’ in the week before Ascension Day.
The Reformation tried to put an end to the more superstitious practices associated with the agricultural year, and to make a distinction between praying to God, the Creator, and pagan cults of fertility; but many local customs and festivals trace their origin back to some of these traditional commemorations, or at least to their revival in the Victorian and later eras (such as Walking Days and Bawming the Thorn). In 2006, the Church of England published resources for the agricultural year as part of Common Worship: Times and Seasons. This recognises that our scriptures (Jewish and Christian) “give eloquent expression to the creative power and wisdom of God.”
“It is therefore a natural instinct for worshipping communities to develop patterns of worship and prayer around the agricultural year.”Common Worship: Times and Seasons, the Agricultural Year
The cultures in which our scriptures were produced were ones in which people lived much closer to the land than most of us do today. The Jewish festivals with which Jesus and his contemporaries were familiar were closely tied to nature and the seasons. Our supermarket culture, in which we can buy strawberries at any time of the year, grown somewhere in the world and transported for us to pick off the shelves when we want, is a very modern phenomenon. We are very distant from the realities of seedtime and harvest. But in our day younger people, especially, are reminding us that human activity now endangers the very ecosystem that sustains our lives and that of the planet. Perhaps within our church year, we need to look more closely at our dependence on God our creator and the world we have been given to care for as stewards.
In October, we mark the harvest season with services in both churches. At St Cross, the harvest festival will be at 10.30am on Sunday 6 October, followed by a lunch in church. At St Matthew’s, there will be a harvest festival service at 10.30am on Sunday 13 October. In addition, we have a Church Family Harvest Extravaganza at 3.30pm on Sunday 6 October.
Please come and join us for any of the above and let’s reconnect with the LORD our maker:
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and the dry land, which his hands have formed.From Psalm 95
The Revd Alan
[i] Sources: Common Worship: Times and Seasons, the Agricultural Year © The Archbishops’ Council 2006 and published by Church House Publishing. The English Year, by Steve Roud © 2006, published by Penguin.