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Harvest and Thanksgiving

Adapted from Roqueta, Menorca’s English language magazine for September 2015.

harvest-festivals

Living in North America for a long time, I became accustomed to the celebration of Thanksgiving in both Canada (in October) and the United States (in November). Both are derivatives of thanksgiving for the harvest.

Celebrating the harvest is a very ancient human practice. Almost all ancient peoples who were agrarian had some sort of ritual to offer thanks for their harvest. In Jewish tradition and scripture the basis of practices associated with seasonal harvest are largely to be found in Deuteronomy chapter 16 (although there are plenty of references in the book of Exodus).

There is also Sukkot, a seven-day Jewish harvest holiday that starts four days after Yom Kippur. It is also known as the Festival of Booths and the Feast of Tabernacles. Sukkot is connected to times in ancient Israel when the people would build huts near the edges of fields during the harvest season. One of these dwellings was called a “sukkah.” “Sukkot” is the plural form of this Hebrew word. These dwellings not only provided shade, but allowed the workers to maximize the amount of time they spent in the fields, harvesting their food more quickly as a result.

In celebrating the harvest, it is a good time to remember, prayerfully and practically, to be thankful for what we have that many do not: plentiful food; companionship and love, both within and outside our families; secure, warm accommodation; and so on. We might be mindful that not all of us have all of these fruits of the harvest, and that there are those among us who have less than others. We might also recognize that the gift of health seems to be dispensed rather unequally at times. This is a good time to think about sharing what we have with those who have less, and finding creative ways to do so.

Our culture has an ambivalent attitude towards those in need. What we might call the cult of the “rugged individual,” and worship of self-sufficiency, are rooted in the pioneering attitude towards settlement of the western part of the American continent, popularized in many “western” films. “God helps those who help themselves,” must be the most frequently quoted passage that is assumed to be biblical but that is most definitely not in the Bible. If anything, Christian theology is based upon the principle of human helplessness: God has consistently intervened in creation to assist humans, and in terms of salvation, we are utterly unable to achieve it by ourselves. The greatest intervention in salvation history is that of Jesus, the Christ, who offered himself as an aid for those who accept precisely that they cannot, ultimately, help themselves.

Apart from salvation, there is perhaps one way in which the concept of “God helps those who help themselves” is correct. It is too easy to fall into the trap of inactivity. We cannot ask for divine help, but then expect God (or anyone!) to do everything for us. It is easy to excuse this by suggesting that God will provide according to God’s will and God’s timing. However, there is really no justification for inactivity. Praying to be well and not going to the doctor would be unwise, because there is nothing in scripture that says that prayer must be exercised without recourse to the rest of the tools in creation: science and medicine, knowledge and communication, natural resources and so on. It is rather that we are to use prayer to ensure that we seek guidance in using the tools given to us, to ask for assistance in using them wisely and with good stewardship. Meanwhile, we need to get on and use what has been provided, remembering to be appreciative and thankful. Perhaps a better saying than “God helps those who help themselves” to adopt as a sort of mantra would be “God helps those who help others.”

Above all, as we celebrate the harvest, we should remember that, together with giving thanks for divine agricultural providence, our spiritual ancestors embraced a healthy sense of responsibility for the resources of the earth. They drew from this an understanding of stewardship for the created world that had been entrusted to them. This heritage of stewardship must continue to underpin our thankfulness.

There is not any single, “right” way to be thankful in celebrating the many harvests of our lives. Nevertheless, one way is to assist those who are less well off. To this end, Santa Margarita will again be collecting non-perishable food for distribution to the needy of Es Castell at the beginning of October, in conjunction with our Harvest Festival on 4 October.

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