The long summer holidays are here. For some. Gone are the days when the break from school was needed so children could help with the harvesting. But still the tradition lingers on – the highlight of the year for so many children, and a childcare headache for so many parents. For gone, too, are the days when most families could get by on one income and the other parent could dedicate their lives to that most daunting and responsible of tasks, bringing up children.
Harvesting still happens, of course, but now its usually undertaken by huge machines run by teams of contractors. Around us, the main harvest is silage for winter feed for the cattle, and, if the weather is good enough, haylage, or even hay, for the sheep. The times when neighbours would go round to help gather the harvest in at each other’s farms has disappeared, and with it, one of the main community-forming practices of rural life that revolved around growing food for the country.
Growing food is, by and large, what farming is all about. The business of growing crops, or grass and animals, is the business of growing life to give life. And because it is about the care and growing of life, it is holy, since all life comes from God.
In the last assembly of term at one of the primary schools I visit, the children asked to sing one of their favourite songs, called ‘As for me and my house’. It’s a song based on the words of Joshua, who led the people of Israel after Moses in the Old Testament, in which he effectively says, ‘This is what it looks like to follow God, and its up to you to choose to do so. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’ There is a line in the song that the children love because they get to shout it, ‘In this place, we’re going to say grace’. I asked the children what that means, and, sure enough, one of them says ‘thanking God for the food we have.’ But why do we ask, and thank, God for food in particular? (‘Give us this day our daily bread.’)
It all comes back to this business of life. Everything that we eat, whether we are vegan, vegetarian, or omnivorous, everything we eat has lived and died. Plants and animals that have lived and grown, ultimately from the soil, have died for us to eat in order that we may live. Our lives only continue because something else has lived, and has given its life to us. Without eating other creatures, we could not exist. Our bodies depend on the life of other bodies to remain alive. So every meal is a sacrament – the passing of one life to another to give life. Every meal is therefore holy, and that is why we give thanks. Not just because we have enough to eat, enough to get by, but because of the gift of life that everything we eat passes on to us.
This is such an important point to realise. We only exist in our bodies. Without them we have no existence. Our bodies are holy, given life by God through the life, first of our mothers, and then from everything we eat. Our bodies are us.
A long time ago the Ancient Greeks came up with the idea that we are really eternal ‘sparks’ of life trapped inside these clay bodies, and that when we die we are released from them to be free once again. Our bodies are, therefore, accidental things that can get in the way of who we truly are. They need to be manipulated, changed, made to conform to the person we think we really are on the inside. That idea still finds a lot of strident traction in society today. Indeed, it is so strong that government policies are now based on it.
But the still more ancient Jewish faith, from which Christianity derives, turns this on its head. We are made from the soil of the earth, and the gift of life is breathed into us. Our bodies are not accidental things to be discarded, but are the essence of who we are, holy, made by God, and without which we have no existence. It was precisely for this reason that God sent his Son in a body of flesh and bone and blood to redeem us. His death on the Cross was the death of a body, and the resurrection meant an empty tomb – the body raised from the dead. The Greek idea was blasted apart. Embodied life is holy. Indeed the earth itself is holy.
So when we say ‘grace’ before a meal, we are remembering the holiness of life, and give thanks to God for all that has lived before us, for our life, and for those who work to bring us life through our food.
Your friend and priest,