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Harvest Thanksgiving: Celebrating Creation Together

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Australian church historian, Kerri Handasyde, had an illuminating essay on “Harvest Thanksgiving and the Photography of Grace” in a recent issue of the Australian Journal of Liturgy.

Arguing that Harvest Thanksgiving “rests at the junction of liturgy, nature and memory,” Handasyde presents an artful analysis of the Harvest Thanksgiving tradition in Nonconformist churches in Australia in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

She offers reflections on the traditions of the Salvation Army, Methodists, Baptists, Churches of Christ and the Congregational Church.

In this blog, we leave on one side Handasyde’s focus on the way the harvest exhibits were preserved photographically.

She says the photographs “illustrate the extent to which religious aesthetics and vocation were tied together.” We focus instead on her evaluation of the meaning of the Harvest Thanksgiving event.

Citing British historian, Owen Chadwick, Handasyde traces harvest celebration to mid-19th century Anglican clerics in England. She claims the celebration offers an expression of embodied faith.

Handasyde is impressed with the “glorious visual transgression” that Harvest Thanksgiving represented. She describes the enormous effort expended in constructing harvest displays.

Noting that nonconformity was “steeped in iconophobic tradition,” she reminds her readers that Scripture was used to warn against “graven image” and the “dissolute distraction of sensuality.”

Even so, the harvest celebrations were marked by scenes of sugarcane towering over pulpits, “an entire apple tree … cut from the earth and brought, laden with fruit, to a chapel” and beautiful displays of fruits and vegetables.

She writes of the colorful arrangement of “the sacred and the profane” and the way banners were employed to convey messages reinforcing what the agricultural exhibits on full display announced.

Our author regards the Harvest Thanksgiving service as “a rich appreciation of nature’s bounty,” which is presented “as a witness to God’s glory.”

Balanced by preachers’ warning against idolatry, the service presents nature as “the people’s practice, a yearly acknowledgement of their spiritual vocation as stewards of the earth.”

Handasyde remarks on how urbanization has affected Harvest Thanksgiving celebration. “Suburbs engulfed farming areas and people converted their own productive yards over to lawns.”

This caused a decline in the availability of locally grown agricultural produce that the churches needed to maintain their liturgical tradition.

When substitute supermarket products proved an expression of “symbolic poverty,” harvest tradition failed to live up to many people’s expectations.

Churches started to broaden the reference to thanksgiving beyond the vocations related to agriculture.

The traditional celebration of harvest was declining fast even as images suited for the new celebration were mostly not related to agriculture.

I grew up in a church where Harvest Thanksgiving celebration was a high point in the community’s worship calendar.

As a child, I witnessed live goats and chickens being presented at the “altar” in the harvest worship service on Sunday and then consumed in altered form at a harvest sale on Monday. I saw loaded corn stalks and banana trees adorning the place of worship.

No one found that strange; the people felt very much at home in those surroundings in church.

Indeed, “people’s spiritual and working lives were intertwined” and worshippers learned to appreciate nature. We were just a step away from understanding the vocation of creation care.

I also recall the preachers who disappointed the people in celebration as they spiritualized the worship event by serenading us with word pictures about the final harvest and warned us of the need to be prepared.

When they reminded us of the transitory nature of life by pointing to the wilting flowers and fading foliage, we were not amused.

Yet, if only those years could return when life in agrarian communities was adorned by rich annual celebrations of the providential care of the God of nature.

Would that “appreciation of nature’s beauty and embodied faith [were still] evident everywhere.” Those who still mark Harvest Thanksgiving in the traditional style should count their blessings.

We are indebted to Kerri Handasyde for an insightful reminder of what was a slice of the corporate worship life of so many of us.

Today, by adopting the right attitude to the natural environment, we may express our appreciation to God for all the “good things around us [that] are sent from heaven above.”

Neville George Callam, a Jamaican, has been serving as general secretary and chief executive officer of the Baptist World Alliance since his election in Accra, Ghana, in 2007. A version of this article first appeared on Callam’s blog. You can follow BWA on Twitter @TheBWA.