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Harvest festivals and the plight of the poor

Canon George Irwin reflects on Harvest and how Christians can respond to those in need, at this time of year.

During the autumn months in Western Europe the tradition of holding a Harvest Festival is still vibrant.

And perhaps one of the main reasons for its  continued vibrancy, despite the much - discussed decline in Christian witness, is that this festival is not only meaningful as an act of thanksgiving but also challenging in terms of our faith.

Undoubtedly, there is a feel-good factor about Harvest Festivals, with well-rehearsed anthems and colourful and painstakingly prepared displays of fruit, flowers, vegetables etc. 

But at a deeper level this display of harvest produce is much more than a display, beautiful as it may be.


Harvest as a sacrament

It is a kind of sacrament – an outward and visible expression of an inner sense of gratitude to God the provider.  Hence the term ‘Harvest Thanksgiving’.

A thankful community - such as Christians claim to be - is a community for whom the ordinary basic things of life have a sacred quality. 

That is to say they are not just things to be used for our welfare but the provision of a personal and loving God to whom we are accountable. 

Thanksgiving flows from a sense of dependence upon God as a personal, loving and generous God. 

The God revealed in Scripture is an open-handed and generous God, and those who profess faith in Him are expected to be open-handed and generous as well.

And yet, it requires discipline if we are to be mindful of how we have been blessed.

Hence, we are told in chapter 26 of the Old Testament book Deuteronomy that the Israelite farmer was exhorted to bring the first fruits of his harvest to the house of God, presumably to be used to relieve the hardship of the poor. And in handing over his offering to the Priest the farmer recited the saving acts of God in the history of the Israelite people. 

Thanksgiving and sacrificial giving to those in need went hand in hand with the discipline of remembering.

Similarly, in the central Christian act of worship, the Eucharist or Holy Communion, when the offering has been presented and the elements of bread and wine are brought forward the prayer of thanksgiving is said in which we recite the saving acts of God through Jesus Christ. 

Then we offer ourselves in the service of Christ, remembering, inter alia, how he launched his ministry by saying, 'The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.' (Luke 4:18).  Once again, thanksgiving (eucharist) and thinking of those in material poverty go hand in hand with the discipline of remembering.

The tradition / discipline of the Harvest Festival is, above all, an act of remembrance and a reminder of at least two vital things which are central to the unremitting witness of Christian Aid:

  1. The need to count our material blessings and be thankful.

  2. To make sure that our act of thanksgiving to God is authentic by sharing with generosity something of what we have received from a generous God.


Canon George Irwin, formerly Rector at St Mark’s Church, Ballymacash,  retired as Chair of the Christian Aid group in Lisburn earlier this year. In 2014 he travelled with Christian Aid to visit partners in Zimbabwe.

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