GSC 7th October 2018
It seems strange to be having an harvest festival in a city where the harvests have almost nothing to do with what we eat. There are probably still strawberries in the supermarkets as a speak, and food actually grown in this country is remarkable enough that they put it on the label. But in the not too distant past harvests were an important affair: a good season, and a good harvest, would be the difference between an hungry winter and one in which everyone had enough to eat, even if only just.
For pagans, harvest time meant feasting and indulgence, a time to celebrate what the earth had provided, accompanied by all the usual reverences to the false gods they thanked for providing for them for another season. When Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, by God’s good Providence, the Church had to work out what to do with these ‘harvest festivals’, as you might call them, which had become a byword for vice, over-indulgence, and all manner of depravity.
The Christians’ response was to meet gluttony with its opposite, abstinence. The Christians marked the harvests with fasting, rather than self-indulgence. This is how the Church came by her ancient Ember Days, the four weeks spread throughout the year marking the important harvest dates: a Lenten Ember week, to bless the start of the growing season; the week after Pentecost, to mark the cereal harvests – wheat, barley, corn; the week after the Feats of the Holy Cross, September 14, to mark the grape harvest; the week after S Lucy’s day, December 13, to mark the olive harvest.
Those of you of riper vintage might well remember the Ember Days from the old Book of Common Prayer, but we tend to hear much less of them these days, now that we don’t know where our food comes from, and children think milk comes from supermarkets, rather than from cows. And I can’t help thinking that this is a very great shame indeed. What we need now, steeped as we are in a culture of conspicuous consumption, of consumerism, is good dose of fasting and penitence, to remind us that food is a sacred gift, not a bottomless or disposable commodity, something we can greedily fill our faces with or leave carelessly to rot in our fridges.
The Book of Genesis reminds us that it is not by our own efforts that all the good things of the world are given to us. “From the soil the LordGod fashioned all the wild beasts and all the birds of heaven.” The LordGod fashioned them. Not man, for all his labour and his self-importance. God. To man they were brought to be named, for they were to be given to man to help him, to meet his needs, to provide for his life on earth. But they were not his creation, to be taken for granted, or used however he pleased.
The gifts of the earth are precious, and they are given to us, as the whole earth is given to us, in trust, by our heavenly Father. And when we die, which we all shall, we shall be asked to render an account of how we have used them, how we have misused them. Because we can, and we do, misuse the gifts that the Lord has given us. And there are two ways in which we can err in regard to the fruits of the earth: first, by treating them too lightly, and second, by treating them too highly. As ever, we Christians must be prepared to tread the narrow path between these two extremes, “for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
We have already suggested a few ways in which we treat the good things of God’s creation too lightly. To be frank, mankind is tearing this precious planet apart with its greed, its lust for choice, the throwaway culture which holds God’s creation in contempt. Pope Benedict XVI – may the Lord bless him – called our age the age of Sin against God the Creator. We see this in all sorts of ways, from the poisonous culture of contraception and abortion, to the disregard for the sanctity of marriage against which Our Lord teaches so explicitly in the Gospel we have just heard, or the celebration of immoral acts. But we see it too in our attitude to the created order, which we use selfishly, to the great harm of ourselves, and our brothers and sisters, and generations yet unborn.
This greed is all about us: the takeaway chicken wrappers which litter the streets are evidence of this disposable food culture; we all know the toll it takes on our children’s health, but do we remember the dreadful spiritual toll of abusing God’s glorious creation so that you can buy half a dozen fatty chicken wings for a pound? How easily we consume food, hardly thinking that others have no food to eat, hardly remembering to pause to give God thanks for what we eat. If you don’t normally say grace before meals, then harvest time, and the Ember Days, are a good time to start: it is something all Christians ought to do.
Because food isn’t meaningless. It isn’t just ‘fuel’ for bodies which wee treat with equal contempt, as disposable objects. God works through the created order in order to save us. The Ember Days show us this, because they point to the way in which our Gracious God has ordered His Church to use the good things of the earth for our salvation.
The Pentecost Ember days mark, as we said, the wheat harvests: the wheat which makes the sacred hosts, which will become, in this Mass and every Mass, the Body of Christ, are made from just such wheat. The Ember Days of September mark the vintage, the grape harvest from which the wine which becomes, in this Mass and every Mass, the Precious Blood of Christ, is made. The December Embertide marks the harvest of those olives whose pressed oil will be used to make the three holy oils with which the Church anoints her members: the oil of catechumens, used in baptism at the death of the old Adam and our rebirth in Christ; the oil of the sick, used before the death of our bodies, that we might be reborn in heavenly bliss; the sacred Chrism which in confirmation consecrates us and seals us with the Holy Spirit, which makes holy the chalice and paten which will hold the Body and Blood of Christ, which anoint the hands of priests, and the foreheads of bishops that we in turn may impart God’s blessing to His Creation.
We cannot escape these material things, and nor should we try to, for they point us to heaven. They are not relics of some distant agricultural past which we can safely forget about as we march around with our iPhones and our pride: they are part of the divine ordering of creation, from which we have wandered, a wandering which weakens us, however much we might call it progress.
But there is another danger association with the good things of Creation, and that is that we end up treating them as idols, much as I worry we do with things like iPhones and computers. If we forget that Creation was made – created, in fact! – to point beyond itself to God, then we risk falling back into a sort of paganism, or idol-worship. Paul writes to the Philippians, “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:18-20)
These are strong words, and should make us uneasy, brothers and sisters. Eating to excess is not just a problem for our waistlines! Not being able to live without our iPhone is not just a regrettable part of modern life! They are sins! If we do not want to live like enemies of the Cross, as S Paul warns the Philippians, then we must not let our belly be our God, or any other part of us, for that matter. For our citizenship is not really here below, but in heaven, to which the good things which God has provided – the corn, the wine, and the oil – all point.
Of all the animals in all Creation, no suitable helpmeet was found for Adam in the garden. Only a human would suffice. So for us, in all Creation, nothing in and of itself, will save us: only a human can do that. And of all the humans who are, or ever have been, or ever will be, only one of them could ever achieve this. Jesus Christ, who “for a short while [was] made lower than the angels and is now crowned with glory and splendour because He submitted to death” (Hebrews 2:9). He, the God “for Whom everything exits and through Whom everything exists,” being made man for us from the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, perfects us, sanctifies us, and leads us to salvation. To Him be glory for ever! Amen.