Readings: Dt. 26. 1-11; 2 Cor. 9. 6-15; Jn. 1. 29-36
Theme: Liturgy as Harvest Festival
In countries in the Northern hemisphere, September is often a beautiful time. It is a time when some crops that have been grown during the year are harvested. I particularly love in England, at least, that feeling in September when you begin to feel the chill in the morning as you know that the long days of summer are receding and you brace yourself for the days of winter which lie ahead announced by the fresh dew on the lawn.
Harvesting crops is something people have done for millennia and it marks a particular point in the yearly rhythm of the community as it comes to give thanks for the growth which the land provides. It is thus only natural that at this harvest time, we gather to give thanks for the creator of the land, God and for all the goodness that God showers upon us.
The Christian liturgy has developed over the centuries according to a similar pattern outlined in the book of Deuteronomy for the ancient Israelite Harvest Festival. The story of the community is first recounted. For the ancient Israelites this involved re-telling the account of God’s liberation of the Jewish people from their enslavement in Egypt and to being brought into the promised land flowing in milk and honey. It is the story of the exodus, which for the Israelites, was the narrative which constituted the people as a nation called by God into freedom. In being brought into such a fertile land the people were then able to grow their own crops and to flourish as a people. So, it was only natural that the ‘first-fruits of the soil’ should be offered up to the Lord as an act of thanksgiving for all the Lord had done for them.
Such an act of thanksgiving, the word is “Eucharist” in Greek, accompanies the telling of the story of Israel as the outworking of what the account of God’s redemption of the community of Israel means. It means that for those who realize what God has done for them a spirit of thanksgiving should characterize their attitude to life.
This is why when Christians gather together on the first day of the week, the day of the Resurrection, we celebrate the liturgy together. This is our way, as the community of Christians, of doing what the ancient Israelites did when they gathered to remember their communal story and to offer thanks to God for all that God had done for them. The liturgy that we celebrate is in this sense always a harvest festival. It comprises the same two parts that we find in the ancient Israelite pattern of worship. The telling of the story of the community, which for us is the ‘Liturgy of the Word’ and the ‘Liturgy of the Sacrament’, the celebration of the Eucharist. In the Christian liturgy, Word and Sacrament, belong together. If either component is missing, then there is something incomplete.
When the Word is not clearly proclaimed and reflected upon, the community can lose a sense of its own identity. It can easily forget who it is and why it has been constituted. Much of the story of ancient Israel is concerned with the prophets reminding the community who they are as they find themselves in alien lands under foreign rule. Forgetting who you are happens when you forgot your story. The story which has made you who you are. When Christians forget their story it is easy to live in alien lands under foreign rule. In our own day, this is an ever-present danger as we live in a society no longer orchestrated by the story of our redemption, but rather by the ‘gospel of mammon’. So, it is doubly important than when we come together on the first day of the week to celebrate our liturgy, we follow the pattern of the ancient Israelite harvest festival, so that we can remind ourselves who we really are.
Once we have reminded ourselves who we really are, we naturally want to give our first fruits to the Lord as a sign and symbol of our thanksgiving for all that we have been given. In other words, the Eucharist, the celebration of the ‘Liturgy of the Sacrament’, is the response of those who have been baptized in the Word of God, as our Gospel for today puts it. In the case of the New Testament, this baptism will be with water and the Holy Spirit. Just as we offer the bread and the wine on the altar, we offer the ‘first fruits’ of the New Creation, Jesus himself, as our thanksgiving to the Father through the action of the Holy Spirit amongst us. This very same Holy Spirit makes the Word of God present to us in the Sacred Scriptures and in the ‘Liturgy of the Sacrament’, in the Eucharist.
So, our liturgy is the way that we Christians re-enact our harvest festival each Sunday. Celebrating the harvest festival reminds us who we are and why we should be thankful. It also focusses our minds on all those who help us to eat and drink and on those who need our help to eat and drink. The giving of our gifts to those in particular need each week is thus a concrete way in which our thanksgiving reminds us that once too we were strangers in a foreign land. Just like the Israelites oppressed in Egypt and wandering through the desert, without the blessing of God, we too are captives and hungry for life. Whether this poverty is material or spiritual it should remind us that our liturgy is meant to send us out to serve those in most need.
So, on this occasion of harvest festival let us give thanks to God for feeding us with his Word and Sacrament. Help us Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit, to feed others with the abundance of your grace so that all may come to know your first fruits of creation, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.