Pondering the First Fruits of the Assumption and More
We celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary this Monday, August 15th. This feast day always evokes the best parts of summer for me, but it also is a signal that summer is waning and schools will be back in session.
Traditionally this has been a harvest feast, connected to the herbs and fruits of the season. There was a Blessing of Fruits and Herbs (including flowers) included in the older Roman Ritual for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The reason for the connection of the harvest blessing and the Assumption is that Mary is considered a “first fruit.”
But what are “first fruits” (sometimes written as “firstfruits” or “first-fruits”)? I have been pondering this term for a while...and there is so much room for wonder and meditation. As a modern culture we have been so separated from our agrarian roots that it makes that term not something in our everyday language.
The term “first fruits” begins in the Old Testament, reserving as sacred and offering as gift to the Lord the first and best of all harvest and flock. This sacred offering is mentioned in the very first book of the Bible, where Cain offers fruit that has fallen to the ground, while Abel offers fatty firstlings of his flock. The Sabbath observance is also a type of giving over first fruits to God. Later, with Moses as mediator for God’s covenant with the Israelites, the feast of Weeks or Pentecost was established, offering a sheaf of the first fruits of the harvest.
First fruits did not always mean harvests and flocks, but also first born of men, of families. But all first fruits were intended to be set apart for God.
Later came the imagery of the Old Testament talked about Israel being a first fruit of God, as the Prophet Jeremiah: “Sacred to the LORD was Israel, the first fruits of his harvest.” Other prophets repeated that God did not want hollow sacrifices and burnt offerings of first fruits, but a change in heart.
That is the historical and Old Testament basis of “first fruits.” For a farmer, it makes sense to offer “first fruits” of one’s harvest to God. I began to see the connection of some of the observances of the Liturgical Year, such as the traditional Ember Days and the Assumption with “first fruits.” But then I attended a funeral shortly after the feast and my ears perked up when I heard the Collect prayer for that funeral Mass:
Almighty God and Father,
it is our certain faith
that your Son, who died on the Cross, was raised from the dead,
the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep.
Grant that through this mystery
your servant (Name), who has gone to his/her rest in Christ,
may share in the joy of his resurrection.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
I realized that while the original images of “first fruits” related to harvest and first born, the New Testament and the Liturgy have used this term in different imageries.
Above all, Christ is the “first fruits”:
Brothers and sisters: Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through man, the resurrection of the dead came also through man. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ; then comes the end, when he hands over the Kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death, for “he subjected everything under his feet” (1 Cor 15:20-27).
But there are also other kinds of first fruits: there is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the first fruits:
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:22-23).
From the Pentecost Sunday Vigil Mass, Opening Prayer:
Dear brethren (brothers and sisters), we have now begun our Pentecost Vigil, after the example of the Apostles and disciples, who with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, persevered in prayer, awaiting the Spirit promised by the Lord; like them, let us, too, listen with quiet hearts to the Word of God. Let us meditate on how many great deeds God in times past did for his people and let us pray that the Holy Spirit, whom the Father sent as the first fruits for those who believe, may bring to perfection his work in the world.
The Preface VI of the Sundays in Ordinary Time:
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God. For in you we live and move and have our being, and while in this body we not only experience the daily effects of your care, but even now possess the pledge of life eternal. For, having received the first fruits of the Spirit, through whom you raised up Jesus from the dead, we hope for an everlasting share in the Paschal Mystery. And so, with all the Angels, we praise you, as in joyful celebration we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts . . .
Eucharistic Prayer IV
…And that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him who died and rose again for us, he sent the Holy Spirit from you, Father, as the first fruits for those who believe, so that, bringing to perfection his work in the world, he might sanctify creation to the full.
Through our baptism, we Christians are also first fruits also:
Dearest brothers and sisters: All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures (James 1:17-18).
And in a special way, the early martyrs were the first fruits of the Church.
I, John, looked and there was the Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. I heard a sound from heaven like the sound of rushing water or a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. They were singing what seemed to be a new hymn before the throne, before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn this hymn except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been ransomed from the earth. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been ransomed as the first fruits of the human race for God and the Lamb. On their lips no deceit has been found; they are unblemished (Rev 14:1-3, 4b-5).
The Collect from June 30, The First Martyrs of Holy Roman Church:
O God, who consecrated the abundant first fruits of the Roman Church by the blood of the Martyrs, grant, we pray, that with firm courage we may together draw strength from so great a struggle and ever rejoice at the triumph of faithful love. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
And the Collect from July 25, Feast of Saint James, Apostle:
Almighty ever-living God, who consecrated the first fruits of your Apostles by the blood of Saint James, grant, we pray, that your Church may be strengthened by his confession of faith and constantly sustained by his protection. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
And December 28 The Holy Innocents, Martyrs, Communion Antiphon:
Behold those redeemed as the first fruits of the human race for God and the Lamb, and who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
Back to the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, we find that the Church also recognizes her at the “first fruit” of Christ. The second reading for the Solemnity of the Assumption is from 1 Cor 15:20-27:
Brothers and sisters: Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through man, the resurrection of the dead came also through man. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ; then comes the end, when he hands over the Kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death, for “he subjected everything under his feet.”
Florence Berger eloquently describes this connection with Our Lady on this feast:
This day, as you know, is the principal and oldest feast of the Virgin. It is the first harvest feast of the year and correctly so, for Mary was a first fruit to be gathered into the Father’s barn. Whatever good men have done, whatever harvest God has reaped, is due in some measure to Mary: for through Mary we have “partaken of the fruit of life”: through Mary “true life flowed out to all.” So when the harvest was ripe Mary became first in time and eternity.
Which has me back to pondering Mary both giving herself as a first fruit, but also offering her first fruits.
These examples of first fruits is not exhaustive. I have actually been pondering this since last year’s feast of the Assumption! I am only scratching the beginning of “first fruits” in the language of our Scripture and Liturgy. In pondering first fruits, there is a both an appreciation of the first fruits given to us, as in Christ and the Holy Spirit, but also a self-examination. Am I giving my best, my finest, my first fruits back to God? And on this feast of Mary, I have both her example of giving herself, the first fruits, to God, but also her help and protection in aiding me to prioritize and give over my first-fruits to Christ.
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