A Harvest of Solidarity
Reality meets ritual in our meal-centered worship
In 1959, Pope John XXIII was already describing the council he convened as
a “new Pentecost.” The Holy Spirit was pouring out charisms to reinvigorate
the church, its mission in the world, and its outreach to other
Christian communions and religions. Our annual liturgical celebration of
Pentecost echoes this same theme by occasioning what the council called
ressourcement, a reaching back down the historical lifeline to the original
event and inspiration that created the church.
A Great Harvest
As our birthday celebration, Pentecost offers us a rich harvest of biblical
themes. It is named for being 50 days from Passover in the Jewish liturgical
calendar. Pentecost, or Shavuot, celebrates the giving of the Torah on
Mount Sinai and the community’s joy at harvest time, the surest sign
of God’s blessing in the promised land. Food security is tied to Israel’s
commitment to the Mosaic commands in Deuteronomy governing harvest;
firstfruits; gleaning; and care of the poor, widows, orphans and alien residents;
as well as the practice of redistribution and debt forgiveness every
seven years and in the 50th year — the Jubilee year. The message was clear:
As God has saved and loved his people, so they must extend those same blessings
to others. Both the Exodus and the Exile are remembered, captured
beautifully in Psalm 126: “When from our exile God takes us home again,
we’ll think we are dreaming. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed for
the sowing, return rejoicing, carrying their sheaves.”
For Jesus, the kingdom of God is seen as a great harvest, the fields white
with grain, wanting only laborers to gather it in (Matt 9:37). The parables
of the sower, the wheat and the weeds, the vineyard, the fig tree, the single
grain of wheat that multiplies by dying, and other metaphors place Jesus’
vision within the covenant promise of a messianic age. He is in the world as
food and drink to hungry people. The evangelists see his death as the grain
of wheat sown at Passover, springing green again in resurrection and
producing the harvest of Pentecost.
— Julie Lonneman
The evangelists see Jesus’ death as the grain of wheat sown at Passover, springing green again in resurrection and producing the harvest of Pentecost.
Renewing the Liturgy
But there is more to the story than just theology and spiritual imagery.
Scholars who have recreated the historical conditions at the time the
Gospels were written suggest that Jesus’ frequent references to farming,
food and meals were grounded in real-life conditions of hunger brought
about by weather and economic policy. Palestine was occupied by the Romans,
who used their military might to extract wealth from the land, and labor
and loyalty from their subjects in the form of taxes and produce. Jewish
grain, oil and wine went to Rome, often leaving the local population with
subsistence diets, a condition that served as a form of control. The dream
of abundant harvests, surplus grain, feasting and food security underlies
many of Jesus’ parables. His power to multiply food in the wilderness was
a threat to Roman control and to the temple authorities who controlled
the religious festivals surrounding harvest and animal sacrifice. Jesus’
cleansing of the temple struck at the nerve of complicity between Roman
and religious interests. The Gospel renewed Jewish liturgy, from Passover
to Pentecost, to reflect God’s Exodus covenant, including the call to justice.
Pope John’s prayer for Vatican II contained all of these themes, including
the need to renew the liturgy to make visible the participation of all
the baptized in the Paschal Mystery, the extension of God’s harvest of
mercy in the world and, in particular, to the poor. Fifty years after Vatican
II — a Jubilee year — we are reminded that this core catechesis will renew
the church and her mission, but only if we move it from language, ritual
and symbol to embodied activity in the world. The first Pentecost was
experienced as an outpouring of wind and fire, good news delivered in every
language, reversing the curse of Babel that had thwarted universal unity.
Our new Pentecost calls the church into the same expansive and generous
spirit of sharing the Gospel with the whole world.
Ritual and Food Security
For us today, the rich theme of harvest invites us to reconnect our
liturgical ritual to the reality of food security. The ancient world held its
breath each spring as sowers went out to commit precious seed grain to
the ground and the weather, knowing that crop failure meant almost certain famine.
Modern people, insulated by supermarkets and cheap food from the
realities of agriculture, easily ignore the fact that global food reserves are
being impacted by climate change and rising demand. A quick search
of the Internet reveals that stockpiles are at their lowest levels in 40 years,
with the global population consuming more than it produced in six of the past 11 years.
Competition over food is hitting the most vulnerable regions of the world
first, pushing an estimated 44 million people into crisis in 2012, undermining
political stability in parts of the Arab world. Experts warn that we
are reaching a tipping point in food security, and that global weather
conditions this year will be critical.
By May 2013, we will know whether drought and flood predictions have
sounded the alarm. For most Americans, this may only mean a rise in
food prices, but for much of the world, actual shortages will hurt health and
nutrition for millions if not billions of people. Every other issue, from
armed conflict to migration, to market instability, to national decisions
to strengthen strategic reserves, will be drawn into this most basic of all challenges.
Perhaps one curious sign of still-unconscious public anxiety over
food in developed countries has been a paradoxical surge in extravagant
consumption of specialty foods, and adulation of chefs and cooking shows.
Besides the enormous waste of food in our culture, what message does
a permissive display of eating and drinking, or the news that obesity is
a major health threat in the United States, say to the rest of the world?
Are we prepared to help and inspire others in a time of crisis?
The Church’s Role
Many religions, including Christianity, place food at the center of their
worship. We gather at the Table of the Lord, where bread and wine become
our encounter with God and one another. Spiritual and physical hungers are
met by God’s promise of abundant life for all.
Our churches open their doors to welcome friends and strangers
into one community. The center we share is both the altar of personal
sacrifice and the table of justice that compels us into the world to advocate
for the hungry poor. If we are true to our own message, how churches
publicly address the question of the universal human right to eat will test
our values and beliefs to the core.
Parishes can do ordinary things to raise awareness of how ritual and reality connect, or how interdependent our lifestyle and
eating choices are to the survival of others.
Crisis management requires careful planning, priorities and strategies
based on good infor mation. The church’s role requires no less
attention to food insufficiency in the parish or neighborhood. Existing
networks of pantries, kitchens and distribution systems like Harvesters,
the Catholic Worker and Catholic Charities are a sign of faith in action.
Important voices that have long advocated changes in our food system
are gaining prophetic prominence as crisis pushes food security to the
top of media coverage. Advocates for regional markets, crop diversity and
corporate decentralization, rotation and conservation, less petrol- and
pesticide-based production, more community and home gardens, better
education to reconnect urban people to the sources of their food — have
been grounded in the biblical truths about creation, stewardship, justice
and the common good.
Parishes can do ordinary things to raise awareness of how ritual and reality
connect, or how interdependent our lifestyle and eating choices are to the
survival of others. Eating is a communal act. What happens on our
altars and family tables touches the lives of millions of people around the
world. How can our eating heighten our sense of responsibility for the
earth we share with 7 billion other human beings?
A parish garden or purchasing food for church and school meals at farmers’
markets supports local producers and can save money. Using the idea
of seasonal eating and the 100-mile diet teaches people about the high
costs and carbon footprints that are incurred when we insist on having
every kind of food all year round. Offertory processions with children carrying
up items to stock food banks and meal programs is powerful catechesis
that creates solidarity with hungry neighbors. Buying Fair Trade coffee
and other products supports just markets and sends a signal to those who
exploit the poor in other countries.
The new harvest John XXIII envisioned for the church 50 years ago is
ripe for implementation in our attitudes and activities, ritual and real.
The solution to world food security is less likely to be competition over
scarce resources if we can seize the challenge to change the way current
systems waste, hoard and distribute food to protect disparity, a vexing
reality addressed in papal encyclicals from John’s Mater et Magistra
down to current letters by Benedict on global economic reform.
The harvest is great, but the laborers are few. Let us pray the Lord of
the Harvest will send each of us to proclaim God’s desire for abundant
life for all God’s children in our world.