“So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth”
It is not often that the epistle reading at Holy Communion is a lesson from the Hebrew or Jewish Scriptures, what Christians know as the Old Testament, and in this case, a passage from The Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It is an especially wonderful passage that deals with the overarching theme of God’s providence at work in creation and redemption and that belongs to a theology of the land and our labours on the land. As such it connects with the celebration of Harvest Thanksgiving.
We are being reminded of the spiritual nature of thanksgiving precisely through the power of the divine word without which there can be no harvest and no thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a profoundly reflective and spiritual activity as well as the freest thing that we can do. The Greek word is one which is somewhat familiar to you: eucharist. The root of that word is charis – grace. Thus thanksgiving is the movement of grace in our souls. It can’t be forced and it can’t be denied. It extends beyond mere courtesy, important as courtesy is. The act of thanksgiving to God raises the character of our duties and obligations to one another to an entirely different and higher level: quite simply to the nature of our engagement with God and his Word and that Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. In turn, as the Gospel for Harvest Thanksgiving makes perfectly clear, it is that Divine Word Incarnate whose “word” is the bread of our lives, the very principle of our existence in, to and with God. It is all a kind of redire ad principia, a return to God as the principle of our very existence.
And while this activity of thanksgiving seems to be predicated and therefore dependent upon our experience of the good things of creation and human labour that we enjoy, it is actually something far more radical and far more challenging because it is about our life with God, summed up, perhaps, in that rich and provocative statement in the great Eucharistic prayer. It is about “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”. And all because the Word which “goes forth” from God goes forth with purpose and becomes first, the Word made flesh and, then, the Word which is given to us as “the bread of life.”
Such a powerful idea. Bread and wine are the almost universal symbols of civilised life, the symbols of our human engagement with the natural world which results in the production of more than simply what nature gives. Our interaction with the wheat harvested from a thousand hills and the grapes gathered from a thousand vineyards produces bread and wine which sustains and delights our social, physical and every day lives. Harvest Thanksgiving recalls precisely the harvest which is about our working with the good order of God’s word in creation. Yet that Word in creation becomes also the Word of God in redemption and the means of our participation in the life of God himself. Jesus identifies himself as “the bread of life,” recalling God’s provision for his people in the wilderness journey – “the manna in the desert”. It has become “the true bread of heaven which giveth life unto the world.” That life is the divine life for “he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” Pretty radical stuff.
It takes us beyond the celebration of the harvest, important as that is. In our Canadian Prayer Book, a number of prayers and readings are provided as part of “A Form of Thanksgiving For the Blessings of Harvest” (BCP, pp. 617-621). Among the many things that are noteworthy in that service is a prayer that “may be used when the harvest has been defective” (p. 619). Thanksgiving cannot be taken for granted. It is not about taking life for granted. It does not even take the harvest for granted. And yet there is still thanksgiving. How and why? Because it is primarily and essentially about God’s Word in our lives. That is the grace, the charis of eucharist.
The prayer recognises the providence of God at work in everything even to the point of God in his wisdom “withhold[ing] from us at this time (an important qualification) “thine accustomed bounty”. God does provide for us – always – even if it is not in the ways we would like. But the prayer adds that “we most humbly praise thee for still bestowing upon us far more than we deserve.” That is a key insight and a spiritual one. It counters most explicitly the entitlement culture which defines and surrounds us where we think God owes us and that we deserve all and whatever we think we would like to have. Thanksgiving is about far more than our desiring and our deserving. It is about all life as a gift. That thanksgiving prayer then prays to God to “make us truly thankful for our many blessings” and to “increase in us more and more a lively faith and love, and a humble submission to thy blessed will.” In other words, the entire focus of thanksgiving is our relation to God whatever the circumstances in our lives. That is truly incredible and freeing.
While thanksgiving is an integral feature of the religions of the world, it is absolutely central to the Christian faith. Our central act of worship is the Eucharist. The Gospel from the sixth Chapter of John’s Gospel is known as ‘the bread of life discourse’ and is entirely sacramental in its approach and understanding. Bread and wine, those universal symbols of civilisation and of human engagement with the good order of God’s creation, have become the very means of our participation in the life of God. How? Again, by God’s Word which goes forth as always with holy purpose. Bread becomes the body of Christ, wine his blood, the very means of our participation in his life-giving sacrifice for the world. “Take eat; this is my Body … Drink ye all, of this; for this is my Blood”. We participate in the great and eternal thanksgiving of the Son to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. We participate in what we proclaim that Jesus is the bread of life. It is his word to us, the word that goes forth to “accomplish that which I please”. “It shall not return to me void” – empty. In Christ, we find our fulfillment, our truth, our good.
“So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth”
Fr. David Curry
Harvest Thanksgiving 2017