A Midsummer Harvest: God's Word yields 'a hundred, sixty or thirty fold'
It is mid-summer, and every home gardener is enjoying his harvest and sharing the bounty. Right through my teenaged years and through my early twenties, my grandfather kept a Victory Garden behind our home. In midsummer, when he took his midday break, he would carry a picnic basket to the kitchen doors and back porches of our block with the riches of his harvest, various kinds of greens (lettuce, escarole, Swiss chard, sometimes dandelion), zucchini, of course, that damningly prolific summer vegetable, occasionally delicate zucchini flowers to be breaded and sautéed, eggplant—the queen of vegetables—varieties of beans, peppers and tomatoes. I am making myself hungry just thinking about him, the joy he took in his garden and the lavishness with which he shared his bounty with the housewives on Alden Place.
The liturgy has a deep ancestral memory of the seasons. It is no accident that today’s readings come in mid-summer when we begin to experience earth’s bounty. When I was a graduate student, I kept a garden in the backyard of the Jesuit residence in New Haven, and when we had cookouts, I asked the guests to listen to the beans grow. At first, they would laugh at me, and I would say, “Just listen.” Then they would hear the slow pop-pop of the bean plants rising from the earth. In an evening, the bean stalks could grow several inches taller. And then the guests would go to the bean hills and watch the plants push up through the earth an inch or two at a time: pop, pop, pop.
In the ancient Middle East, midsummer was the time of a first harvest and second planting, with a second harvest again in the fall, when the Jews celebrate the feast of Succoth. The stress of today’s readings is less on planting, as we tend to think of it, but on harvest, on the yield at the end of the season. God’s word will do his will, as Isaiah says, achieving the end for which he sent it.
I read the short form of the reading because it reveals more clearly the theological meaning of the text. The allegorical long form distracts us from the fact that Jesus is talking about the yield, whether it is thirty, sixty or one hundredfold. The allegory forces us into a semi-Pelagian mode worrying about all the things we might do wrong, missing the point that God’s word is having effect all around us.
The pithy parable of the seed growing secretly, that is, undetectablely, to the human senses, in Mark 4 makes the point more succinctly (Mk. 4:26-29). The farmer sows his seed, and he sleeps and rises night and day
The message is twofold: First, God’s Word is doing its work, despite our human inattention, just as the earth produces the grain even while the farmer sleeps; and, secondly, God will gather the harvest, not when we would rush it, but when it is ready.
This past winter was very hard on ornamental plants in Washington. A lot of homeowners lost their hydrangeas. Many thought they had lost their fig trees too. At Wolfington Hall we have a couple of ornamental fig trees by the corner of the building. When spring came, it looked as if they had been killed off. Then, weeks late, small leaves sprouted at the top of the trees, but the bottom branches still looked blasted. Now both trees are full with broad green leaves just in time to enjoy the heat of full summer. The seed produces its yield, the earth produces its fruit. Just so God’s grace continues to build the kingdom of God.
Like the armchair gardeners at Wolfington Hall thinking the fig trees had been killed off, and I was among them, we are prone to worry about the problems and not see the promising action of God around us. We need to look about and delight in the yield, whether it is thirty, sixty or one hundredfold. Fifty years after Vatican II’s Declarations on Ecumenism and on Non-Christian Religion, Georgetown has arguably the best ecumenical and interreligious ministries in the country. You enter Healy Hall and there they are: Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim chaplains, and if you turn the corner, you’ll see a slide show displaying the other religious traditions that can be found on campus. One evening when I was returning home on the G-2 bus, I overheard a Muslim couple sitting behind me saying how good it was that so much opportunity for a religious life was offered, but not forced, on students.
When social ministry has faded in so many places, including this archdiocese, John Carr’s Catholic Social Teaching initiative and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, where I sometimes hang my hat, not only keep talk of the Catholic social tradition alive in the nation’s capital, but also sustain the engagement of the Church with the World on everything from religious liberty, to development to nuclear disarmament.
Over at Holy Trinity as well as on campus, spiritual direction and retreats are flourishing. Several times a week direction groups and retreatants can be found meeting at Wolfington Hall. We just have to look around and see God’s grace abound. I am repeatedly astounded by the number of people of all ages that have made the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. Midsummer is time to taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Ultimately, it is God’s work, and its fruit will be known in God’s time.
Having divine assurance that God is at work, even when we don’t detect it, should make it easier for us to let the seed of His Word take root in our own hearts, to sprout and to grow. What seed of that Word is growing secretly in your heart? What vocation or mission is taking root? What Christian longing is popping up amd can’t be kept down, like my summer beans? What noble desire has been sprouting within you ready to flower?
These last weeks we have listened to the Sermon on the Mount. Do you find yourself identifying with one beatitude more than the others? How can you be salt to the earth or light to the world? Which of Jesus’ radical commands most engages you? Forgiveness, purity, plain-speaking, nonviolence, love of enemies? Which of those dispositions has begun to take root in your heart? Which of them do you feel should mark your life and doesn’t?
In mid-summer we can delight that God does the work and God gives the gifts. Even as we struggle, we can take comfort in that. But, like my grandfather filling his picnic basket, it is also time for us to harvest the gifts God’s Word has seeded in us, and to share them at the kitchen doors of the world. It is time for us to make them our own and to share them for the good of all, for they are they are gifts, as Pope Francis keeps reminding us, intended for the building up of the church and for the benefit of God’s suffering world.
Ask yourself today—all day— what seed of the Word of God is germinating in me this summer?