It seems to me that the last few decades have seen a decrease in importance for celebrations related to the agricultural year such as the Harvest thanksgiving. Indeed, even from my own limited experience I can see that in many places Harvest has transformed into a good excuse for emptying the cupboards of those preserved fruits we never use, for collecting tinned products of all sorts, and for focusing some of our limited attention on the plight of the poor and needy.
In other words, it seems that for many the celebration of Harvest thanksgiving has lost its two major components – the first one being the idea of harvest itself (because many of us have lost touch with farming and agriculture); and the second one being the concept of giving thanks to God for material things (because we often use this occasion to rehearse tired arguments about world poverty; rarely giving much of a thought about actually thanking God).
In the midst of this entire spiritual decline even our liturgical books appear to be unsure on what to direct the attention of the faithful. For example, the special provision of prayers set aside for Harvest focuses on giving thanks for spiritual benefits received from God, rather than on the material things, such as food, necessary for our daily life.
So where do we start in order to recover a true sense of celebration and thanksgiving for Harvest?
I would suggest that the pathway to spiritual recovery is in proper meaning of the celebration itself. Harvest thanksgiving calls us to reassess our position in the world. It prompts us to rediscover the truth that we are all creatures of God, and that the extraordinary gifts we share as humans have been given to us in order to fulfil our task as fellow stewards of creation. Harvest thanksgiving should recall the Christian mind to the parable of the talents, where the rich landowner entrusts his servants with some of his possessions so that they may make faithful and fruitful use of them.
Our human race has been entrusted with remarkable talents not in order for us to forget God, who is the ultimate provider and sustainer of all creation, but rather to cooperate with him and to contribute to his marvellous work in all that we do.
So at harvest we humble ourselves before God, expressing our dearest and most heartfelt thanks to the Father of all creation, for giving us through the skilled hands of workers, a great abundance of produce and foods of all kinds. We thank him for all those who work to grow, farm, and produce our harvest. And we thank him for all the exceptional talents that have allowed us to overcome malnutrition and poverty in many areas of the world.
Our thanksgiving joy may is blemished by the sufferings, famine, and injustice we see reported in the media, or we have experienced first-hand. However, we must not lose heart, but rather pledge ourselves to be better stewards of the talents God has entrusted us with.
Recovering the Christian meaning of Harvest thanksgiving means that our celebration, with its joy and colourfulness, is to be directed solely towards God who provides us with material things as well as countless spiritual blessings. This celebration may be indeed a suitable occasion for sharing our resources with those in need, but it is primarily an act of worship to the loving Father of creation.
Only if we understand this dynamic correctly we can move productively from worship of God in church to action for the sake of God in the world, devoting ourselves every day of the year to a more ethical way of life where all are given access to the abundance of creation.