Trainspotters, radio hammers, amateur computer programmers, players of dungeons and dragons. Anoraks, mopeds, sandals worn with woolly socks. We’re all familiar with the related concepts of the geek, the nerd, and the boffin. What many people do not realise is that there is no nerd quite as nerdy as a church nerd. There are those who are obsessively interested in the minutiae of different aspects of church life: liturgical anoraks, vestment geeks, architectural boffins. I am by no means the worst, or the best, of them, but I do have that side to me, and so I ask you to indulge me in a little church nerdery for a moment. I ask not only for your patience, but also for your concentration!
There is a very interesting tradition found in the old calendars of the western church. It can be found buried in the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, and it was a feature too of the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic liturgy, which is of course where our Prayer Book got it from in the first place.
This tradition stems from the problem of reconciling the moveable feasts connected with the date of Easter with those feasts such as Christmas and Epiphany which have a fixed date in the solar calendar. Because Easter, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday all move, but Christmas and Epiphany do not, the number of Sundays between Epiphany and Lent, and the number of Sundays between Trinity and Advent, varies from year to year. The church’s calendar provides collects and readings for each Sunday, but, in the old system, these sometimes run out either before Lent, or before Advent, depending on whether Easter is early or late. The solution is simple: the spare collects and readings that were not used on the Sundays after Epiphany are borrowed by the Sundays after Trinity, or vice versa.
In practice what this means is that there was in the old church calendar some interchange between the bible stories read in church in early spring and the bible stories read in mid- to late-autumn. And it so happens that many of the gospels set for these Sundays were those parables of Jesus steeped in the agricultural life of first-century Palestine.
Seed-time and harvest. These things are of course deeply connected, and the old practice of swapping collects and readings between the Sundays before Lent and the Sundays before Advent points to this truth.
The gardeners among you will know that September, often thought of as the month of harvest, is also a great time for re-seeding one’s lawn. The various self-seeding plants such as teasels and fox-gloves and holly-hocks spread their seeds in the autumn. One farmer harvests the autumn vegetables whilst another sows the winter wheat. A proportion of the grain that is harvested in August or September becomes the seed for next year’s crop.
Today we give thanks for the harvest. We give thanks for God’s provision of the material necessities of life. In this time of rising prices we are perhaps more mindful of the fragility of human life, and the fragility of the agricultural processes and supply chains that sustain it in today’s world. And today we also give thanks for the sacrament of baptism, the sacrament of initiation into the Christian faith, for the new life of baby Eloise, and for her new life in Christ which begins today.
We might on the one hand think of the sacrament of baptism as a kind of a harvest. The baptism of a baby is in a sense the fruit of the parents’ faith, the fruit of the parents’ commitment, and also in a bigger sense the fruit of the labours of all those who had a role in educating and forming the parents in the faith of Christ. Parents, teachers, junior church leaders, parish clergy, school chaplains – the efforts of all of these come to a fruition in the baptism of a baby.
But in another sense the sacrament of baptism is a sowing. It is a beginning, it is the planting of a seed, and we pray that the seed will be watered, that it may find rich soil, that the warm sun may awaken it, that the seed of grace that is sowed in this holy sacrament today may grow and blossom and flourish as baby Eloise grows in body and mind.
Harvest and seed-time, seed-time and harvest. The old practice of the church in swapping collects and readings between the spring and the autumn points to the deep relationship between these two seasons. We can think of the sacrament of baptism as both a harvest and as a sowing, as both a fruition and a beginning, and likewise in our own faith journeys we may perhaps be able to identify similar connections.
In today’s gospel Jesus speaks of Himself as the True Bread, the Bread of Heaven, the Bread of Life. With the disciples in today’s gospel we say “Lord, give us this bread always”. As we reflect on the fragility of human life, and as we ponder with gratitude the generosity of God’s material provision for us, and the work of the many human hands that produce and process and distribute our food, so too we acknowledge our spiritual fragility. We acknowledge our profound need to be fed by Jesus, the living bread. But here too we may we the relationship between harvest and seed-time, the relationship between being fed, and feeding, the relationship between the grain that feeds and sustains, and the grain that is sown to become next year’s crop.
Because each one of us, fed by the Lord Jesus in the sacrament of the altar, becomes in turn one who feeds others. Each one of us has a calling not only to acknowledge our need to be fed by the Lord Jesus, but also to feed others. It may be through a kind word of encouragement, it may be through a ministry of teaching or preaching, it may be in a work of hospitality or of charity, it may even be in a priestly vocation. Each of us is called both to be fed and to feed in turn.
Harvest and seed-time, seed-time and harvest. We often see the Christian life as a linear journey, but it also has a cyclical element, cycles of planting and harvesting, harvesting and planting, being fed and feeding others, feeding others and being fed ourselves.
Today we give thanks for the goodness of God made manifest in this year’s harvest. And today we pray also for the sowing and the planting that will bring forth next year’s crops. So too we pray that in our lives as Christians, we may both harvest and plant, we may both feed and be fed, and that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, may grow and flourish abundantly in our lives, in the life of baby Eloise, and in the life of the whole church.
In the Name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.