Last week, at the very end of July, Anna and I walked up to Foscote and across the fields, when we saw a combine harvester at work, starting to bring in the first of the wheat harvest. Talking with parishioners at the St Edmund’s coffee morning, held outside the church yesterday, I was asked “What was that, a red Massey Ferguson?”
I answered that I supposed that it was – and then was told just which farmer it was who would have been at work. It was a reminder to me of just how close we are, living here, to the farming life – a reminder made sharper by the conversation that followed, about the width of cut that different machines offer (from 18 feet to 40 feet) and their comparative advantages and drawbacks!
My mother was a farmer’s daughter from Norfolk; and as research for a book that I am writing, I have been reading about how the harvest was brought in during the first half of the 19th century. An 1843 description of harvest in Norfolk describes the activities and methods: “Thirty-four men mow the wheat and in order to lay it evenly, their scythes are fitted with cradles made of iron rods. These men are each followed by two women and a boy or girl to gather up the corn into small sheaves. Eight teamsmen ..... follow to shock up the sheaves, of which they place ten in a shock, or stook ... 300 acres of wheat is cut in six days. Carting takes a further eight. Eighteen to 20 days are needed to complete the harvest.”
How times have changed!
But what has not changed is the importance of the harvest, however close or remote we are to it. Bread is for most of us still a daily essential; and the importance of the flour from which it is made was reinforced at the start of the recent pandemic, when the shelves were cleared of it.
As such, it is an opportune time to remember the ancient English Christian custom of baking a first loaf of bread from the flour of the first harvest and then bringing it to church to have it blessed. In early Christian times this custom came to be fixed for celebration on August 1st – last weekend – a day that was called “Lammas”, formed from the phrase “loaf mass”, when prayers were offered for a successful harvest. I remember some years ago attending a Lammas service in another rural church, where an elaborate loaf baked in the form of a sheaf was placed upon the altar – and how strangely moving that service was: connecting us with the faith of all who had worshipped in that place over so many centuries.
So early August is Lammas-tide, a time to focus on bread and our dependence on the fruits of the harvest. Blessing a loaf of bread in church may sound a bit odd to some. But it’s interesting to note that in some Christian traditions, such as the Eastern Orthodox church, prayer books also include prayers to bless not just bread but for digging wells, for salt, for sowing seed, for barns, for herds and enclosures for cattle, bees, beehives, honey, planting vineyards, stocking fishponds – and much more.
What’s interesting to note about all these blessings is not so much their specialness, but rather their very ordinariness. Many of them have to do with a farm life that most of us never touch directly, but the produce of that farm life is relevant to us all, in the foodstuffs upon which we all depend. Even the most meagre of diets—bread and water—includes bread. Bread goes to the very heart of human life.
It is therefore no coincidence that when Christ broke bread at the first Eucharist, and instructed us to “do this in memory of me” he chose to do it through something so universal, made with the hands and the knowledge of a baker, and at the same time, the fruit of God’s creation.
We recall Jesus’ teaching after the feeding of the five thousand, where he describes himself as the Bread of Life – the one who provides everything we need in life: the answer to our prayer “Give us this day our daily bread”. Just as the bread distributed to the five thousand was sufficient for all bodily needs, so the life of Jesus in us has the potential – if we seek it – to fulfil our inner needs, our thirst for love and grace, for belonging and significance.
At Lammastide, the first fruits of the harvest were offered to God as a response to his provision. 'All things come from you, and of your own do we give you.' So may we reflect, even at this difficult time, on how by God's grace the seed will continue to grow, the dough will rise, and that the fields around us will yield a rich harvest. And may we remember also to be thankful in everything we do: recognising that the first claim on all that we have is God's, because He is the provider of all things.