Greater forces than us making it happen

Today is Plough Monday - the first Monday after Epiphany - when, in medieval times, God's blessing was invoked upon those who tilled the soil.

Today is Plough Monday - the first Monday after Epiphany - when, in medieval times, God's blessing was invoked upon those who tilled the soil.

In those days, the new calendar year would not begin until March 25th, but the solstice was past, the days were lengthening, the seasons had come full circle. It was time to start again: ploughing began!

No prayer was ever uttered more fervently than 'Give us, this day, our daily bread'. But there could be no first-fruits, no increase, no harvest, and no bread until the fecund earth had been penetrated and exposed, the heavy clods broken, and good seed sowed. No task was more basic.

So 'God speed the plough' was the cry - a sentiment we should endorse heartily, despite the radical changes in farming methods which have occurred, not least in our own lifetime.

Fields of good-looking winter barley are proof that much ploughing took place months ago. It began immediately the giant combines had swept through the ripe corn. Today, stubble fields seldom last long; the partridges have to move quickly! And, in autumn, as the beet was lifted, the ploughing continued. But those are not reasons for ignoring Plough Monday! Most of these old celebrations retain a timeless symbolic value. There is always an element of symbolism in religion: and the issues symbolised are usually important.

If we were less literal-minded, we might recognise that society is strengthened by the exploration of moral and spiritual themes - even when this means dealing in myths and symbols.

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Like me, you may not believe literally in Adam and Eve but, by any reckoning, the story is a dramatic expression of a flaw in human nature we ignore at our peril.

You may not see how the execution of one man could possibly have any bearing on things amiss in the world today (not least, in your own life): yet the existence - in both realms - of matters requiring fundamental attention few of us, at our best, would deny.

(Of course, deciding where symbols end and historic truth begins is what gives religion its spice!)

Anyhow, just as the Harvest Festival represents all harvests, whenever they are gathered, Plough Monday symbolises the preparation and the sowing, without which the possibility of harvest would not exist.

As a child, I sang:

Farmer, farmer sow your seed,

Up the field and down,

God will make the golden corn

Grow where all is brown

And that's the point of Plough Monday. We can use the most modern tractors, the latest machinery, the highest quality seed - but when we've done our best, we've done!

Oh, we stand ready with pesticides and fertilisers, we drain and irrigate as occasion demands, watching and waiting - but, ultimately, what follows is in other hands! The vagaries of the weather, the mysteries of germination and growth - 101 unforeseen complications may lurk between sowing and reaping. I know it's philosophically inadequate and theologically unacceptable - for any 'God' must be involved also in those parts of the process we consider our own, from tractor design to the provision of oil and chemicals - but on a Monday morning, for the sake of argument, can't we call factor X 'God', and at least summon up enough humility to acknowledge that there are forces at work in addition to direct human activity?

A rousing Harvest Festival in October followed by a well-supported Blessing of the Plough early in January is ideal. The symbolical sheaves or bales need hardly to be removed from the church in between. They would not be out of place.

November is the month of remembrance - and many of those who died came from the fields and from following the plough. Look at those lists of names, in every village. Then, in December, the corn and bales could be useful in connection with the crib or nativity play. How would the ox and ass manage without straw?!

When last I wrote about Plough Monday I mentioned the old ballad of The Blind Ploughman, and wondered if John Taylor might include it again in his popular wireless programme on Radio Norfolk. It duly featured! - which gives me this opportunity of paying my personal tribute to a remarkable Norwich boy and Christian gentleman, who enriched the lives of so many in this county.

Nothing 'just happens'! Plough Monday celebrates the harnessing of human talent with the forces of Nature.

It's about co-operation with powers over which our control is less than immediate or total. The principle is capable of wide application. Whenever we do our own part faithfully, we are entitled to pray hopefully: 'God speed the plough!'