Towards the end of the church’s liturgical year congregations often sing “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” a Thanksgiving song if ever there was one. But it is so much more. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, as Advent approaches a world still growing dark and ever more cold, this hymn reminds us that it is God alone will save us, or condemn us, in that great final harvest at the end of time.
It is also a hymn that should remind us of our worldly dependence on an often ignored sector of our economy and community: farmers. Of course, this dependence on agriculture is very much related to our faith. Again and again Christ’s parables use agricultural motifs to teach His truth to humankind. The people of first century Palestine, like most throughout all of human history, understood the vital link between farming, human life and those terrifying transcendent forces that made farming and life possible. Or not possible.
In today’s era of hyper-technology and industrialized, commercialized suburban sprawl, our only reminder that the food we buy was grown on a real farm (by real people) are the murals that enclose the produce sections of supersized supermarkets. This separation between ourselves and our food supply is as startling as, and is related to, the ease with which many often live unconcerned with divine judgment.
This separation between consumers and farmers has been skillfully described by author Wendell Berry in his essay “The Pleasures of Eating,” sent to me by Providence College’s Dr. Mathew Cuddeback, who offers a course on the philosophical principles of sound ecology.
Berry writes that “most urban shoppers would tell you that food is produced on farms. But most of them do not know what farms, or what kinds of farms, or where the farms are, or what knowledge or skills are involved in farming. They apparently have little doubt that farms will continue to produce, but they do not know how or over what obstacles. For them, then, food is pretty much an abstract idea—something they do not know or imagine—until it appears on the grocery shelf or on the table.”
Or, I would add, on the altar.
The messy business of salvation came at a very high price: the life of our Lord. But for many of us, the Eucharist—which begins as wheat and grapes grown on farms—is something of a commodity that one expects to be served up on Sundays but has little to do with the rest of the week, let alone eternity. In Berry’s terms, the question of salvation has become an abstract idea. Christ’s final judgment has to do with some life other than the one I am living; some person other than me.
This brings us back to the substance of our hymn, and its not-so-quaint agricultural references in its later verses: “For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take His harvest home; From His field shall in that day, all offenses purge away; Giving angels charge at last, in the fire the tares to cast; But the fruitful ears to store, in His garner evermore.”
When sung communally, these images beautifully balance comfort and challenge, as well as the eternal and the present. Such linkage is what good theology (and good hymnology) should do. And indeed, this hymn excels at using our vital dependence on real (local) farms as a reminder of our very real dependence on our Father, whose life-giving Spirit seeks our healthy maturity, so that when our Lord and King returns we each pray His judgment will find us a worthy and ever thankful harvest, one fit to be taken home.