So, here we are in "Autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness", as the poet John Keats wrote. And it’s also the season of Harvest Festivals and this weekend the great feast of St Michael and All Angels - Michael’s Mass, or Michaelmas.
Michael the Archangel was credited with having led God’s army in driving out Satan and his followers from Heaven. His feast day yesterday, 29th September, comes not long after the Autumn Equinox, so by now the days are shorter than the nights, and they’ll go on getting shorter. The shortening (or in spring, the lengthening) of days happens at a much greater pace around the equinoxes, and since in the popular thought of past times there was always a link between darkness and evil, people would be praying earnestly through the autumn to be protected from evil. Since Michael was seen as one of the great protectors, Michaelmas was one of the times for such prayer.
But Michaelmas is significant in the secular world too. It’s a quarter day, so therefore a hiring day, a day for the transaction of land and property, and one of the days when rents were paid. And Michaelmas begins one of the four legal terms in the year when the courts of the land sit in judgement.
And at about the time of Michaelmas the “Harvest Home” would be happening too. Harvest home was completely a secular affair until it began to transmute into the harvest festivals we now know maybe a century and a half ago. The harvest home originally was just a big party to celebrate the crop brought in, and the fact that the hard labour of harvesting was over. Back in the days when if there wasn’t enough food in the barn someone was going to go hungry, both harvest home and Michaelmas celebrated being safe and secure, ready for the dark and cold of winter. I suspect the main tradition of the old harvest home was the drinking of lots of rough cider. But there seem to have been quite a few old traditions connected to Michaelmas.
One such tradition was the Michaelmas Goose, which would have been well fattened from the stubble left in the fields at harvest, and then kept to be eaten as winter food. Goose Fairs were commonly held on or around Michaelmas Day, one of the greatest being the Nottingham Goose Fair that still takes place today.
I was always told not to pick blackberries after Michaelmas, because the Devil would have spat on them and spoiled them. I think originally that would have been the old Michaelmas Day of October 10th, because 29th September seems too early to stop. And sometimes people say St Luke’s Day instead, which is 18th October. By this time of the year blackberries are getting past their best, and they don’t have the lusciousness and flavour of the fruit in late summer. But maybe these days we wouldn’t feel the need to blame the devil!
St Michael is also, I’m told, one of the several patron saints of horses and horsemen, and there was a Scottish tradition of horse races on Michaelmas Day. It seems as well that at Michaelmas you could lawfully borrow your neighbour’s horse without needing his consent, and ride it for the day, provided the horse was safely returned before daybreak! You can see how important the cult of Michael was in medieval times from the impressive number of causes of which he’s regarded as patron - chivalry, soldiers, police, paramedics and firefighters. Some regard him as a patron of the sea, of those who are living with illness, and of grocers; and he is the patron saint of Germany.
It would have helped my sermon theme if Michael had also been the patron of farmers, but alas, no. That honour goes to St Isidore, of whom I confess I know almost nothing. But the wealth of old traditions from this time of the year reminds us how such traditions used to rule people’s lives. Now mostly they’re fading from memory, to be remembered only by antiquarian enthusiasts.
And that starts me worrying that maybe harvest festival’s one of those old traditions whose time really is done, and in the end it’s bound to fade away. Could church itself be numbered among the fading traditions? This building was built to last, like the faith it was built to proclaim. But has it really had its day?
When we look back, we see lots of interesting and colourful old traditions, nice to remember but hardly relevant today. What about when we look forward? Maybe we don’t see anything very much, no clear road ahead, no secure future. We find ourselves saying, “Wouldn’t it be great to go back to how things used to be!” I say that myself.
Harvest is a time when memories are at their strongest - and I remember full pews and mighty choirs, processions through the streets, and a well supported church brimming with confidence. It’s amazing what memories can be conjured up by the smell of chrysanthemums or a verse of “We plough the fields”. Some of them may even be true.
My memory’s also triggered by Michaelmas Daisies. Everyone used to have them in their gardens, though I don’t see quite so many these days. Being late flowering plants that would stay in flower right through till the frosts, they were a welcome splash of autumn colour, as this old verse reminds us:
The Michaelmas Daisies, among deed weeds / bloom for Saint Michael’s valorous deeds, and seems the last of flowers that stood, / till the feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude.
Simon and Jude’s day is 28th October, by the way. Another thing we’ve lost, I suppose. Now we’ve got things all around us to tell us the time and the date, watches, phones, even cookers and washing machines - we no longer need to look at the sun, and no-one these days measures the date in saints’ days.
But we can’t go back to the past, whether real or fondly imagined. Perhaps we wouldn’t want to go back to the real past, anyway. The world’s moved on, and we’ve only one direction of travel. And, if you’re wondering, I don’t believe that either harvest festival or the church itself is no longer relevant.
In fact I believe the exact opposite. Harvest festival is if anything more important, and Church should be. Harvest reminds me that there’s a God-shaped piece in all of us; we’re not really complete without it. A previous Archbishop of Canterbury - I forget which - once said, “A nation that loses its faith loses its soul.” And by soul I think he meant its raison d’etre, its direction and purpose, its identity.
The harvest isn’t mine to do what I want with - to hoard, stash away, defend from all comers, without any thought for others. That’s a harvest message we need to hear. It’s not my harvest, it’s God’s. The fruits of the earth are at best a co-operative venture; we can only use what’s given us. Harvest festival tells us that, and reminds us that we ourselves should be God’s harvest, fruitful in our care for each other and for the land, fruitful in the praise and service we offer our Lord.
Tradition has an important part to play, and I’m glad that harvest reminds us where we come from, our roots and heritage. Without the labours of our forbears, we’d not be here. Without our care, there is no future harvest. Everything links together.
Harvest festival celebrates the greatest of Givers - God who creates, God who holds all things in being. His church should be a giving church. We call Jesus the man for others; and we should be a church for others. From great cathedrals to the smallest country church we are here to serve, to be community minded and world minded. Michael is celebrated as God’s warrior; may we be warriors too - not holding back or hiding our faith, but living it boldly and generously and lovingly, in the name of Christ.