Harvest Festival is still a good thing

From the desk of…

by Debora Bell, Lt. Colonel – 

It is October, the traditional time of harvest festivals. Crop, yield, produce, return, reap, gather, collect, and bring in are all synonyms for the word “harvest.” Fair, fiesta, carnival, celebration, event, do, party and gala are all synonyms for the word “festival.” For most “citified” Americans, harvest festivals are only dim, historical references. For Salvationists with at least 20 years of connection to The Salvation Army, we remember it as a time of giving an offering to support the training of officers. I joined the Army when I was eleven and quickly learned that we had two special collections—one in the fall for Harvest Festival and one in the spring for Self Denial. I never gave much thought to what those titles meant until I began to wonder why we did what we did.

Here are some of the things I wondered about and some of the answers I found. I wondered why we worshiped on Sunday when the Biblical day of rest was Saturday. Part of the answer: first century Christians were not welcome in the synagogues. When the gentile believers began to outnumber the Jewish believers, it became more popular to meet at dawn on Sunday to celebrate the resurrection. Early Christians, many of whom were slaves, would gather before their work day began.

Why is the “traditional” starting time for church in America on Sunday morning around 11:00? Why do we have Sunday school before the church meeting? The answer to both of those questions can be connected to early American agrarian society. Cows had to be milked, animals had to be fed and other necessary chores completed before believers could travel into town and gather for worship.

So what about Harvest Festival—why did I choose that topic? The topic is partially inspired by the fact this article is for an October edition; I was thinking about what happens in October. One of the biblical festivals that occurs in October is the Feast of the Tabernacles. This was a time when the Jewish community would celebrate the past and present goodness of God during the harvest season. When a society is based on agriculture, they are normally in tune with the cycles of nature. Most agrarian cultures have some kind of harvest celebration. The Feast of the Tabernacles is different in that it was significant not only agriculturally and historically, but also prophetically. All of the feasts prescribed by God had prophetical significance.

It is important to note that the scriptures were read aloud to the people during this feast. An example is found in Nehemiah 8: the people gathered at the Water Gate to hear the words from “the Book of the Law of God.” As Ezra read, the priests circulated among the crowd to explain what was being read. Conviction fell on the people, and they began to weep. Then Nehemiah told the people it was not time to weep, but time to rejoice and celebrate God’s goodness, for God had brought them back from exile and blessed them.

Several lessons from this feast bless me. First I think of the tabernacles—temporary shelters reminding us that God is our shelter and that God became flesh to “tabernacle” among us. (John 1:14) Second is the significance of water during this time. The priests read Scriptures that referred to water during the eight days of this celebration. John 7:37-38 indicates that Jesus announced on this last and greatest day of the celebration that he was the source of the water of life.

Many people believe that the first Thanksgiving celebrated in America was actually based on the Feast of the Tabernacles. So where does Harvest Festival come into all of this? For early Salvationists, Harvest Festival was a time to share of their bounty and blessings to help support the work of God. At first it was an extra offering to support the expanding ministry of The Salvation Army. Then it became the traditional way to support the training of officers.

There has been an effort to revive this special offering. It is the conviction of many leaders that if our membership gives an offering to support the cost of training officers, there will be some “ownership” of cadets and candidates. It is our hope that if Salvation Army congregations feel a sense of ownership, they will begin to pray regularly for cadets and candidates. As they pray and think about cadets and candidates, they will realize “we” are all recruiters of future officers and cadets. Here is a paraphrase of a well known verse: The fields are ripe and almost past the time they can be harvested. Pray and ask the Lord to send help. Who will help to reap, gather and bring in the harvest? Lord, we need some help in The Salvation Army. Send it quickly. Amen.

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