Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reflections on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

I love my mother’s cooking. I love being with family. I love the parade and I love football.

But I also enjoy Thanksgiving because of its lack of tension between the sacred and the secular. Thanksgiving is primarily a cultural celebration; it is not a major holiday of the Christian liturgical calendar. It is a day to celebrate family and food and blessings; it is not a day set aside to recognize and celebrate the measures that our great God has undertaken to reconcile humanity to God’s self. And because Thanksgiving is not as firmly rooted in the Christian tradition as other holidays, namely Christmas and Easter, its commercialization is less offensive to me. The focus can be on the food and the shopping because there is no baby in a manger or empty tomb on this day. I can watch the Black Friday advertisements and fight the crowds at the mall without an increasing sense of inner turmoil over how completely antithetical our celebrations have become to the worship and adoration of God, which once formed the foundation of these holidays.

I love Thanksgiving because I don’t feel like I’m worshiping the wrong god when I say grace at the table. God swoops in to receive the prayer of thanks and hear the requisite words of gratitude, and then is dismissed again before becoming the guest whom everyone invites but no one wants to talk to.

Yet I think I’m letting myself off the hook too easily. I think there is more of a place for God in my Thanksgiving celebrations than in the prayer of thanks before the meal.

The lectionary readings for Thanksgiving Day bring just such a prophetic word for our comfortable secular holiday.

The Gospel reading, from the seventeenth chapter of the book of Luke, is a familiar story. There are ten lepers who approach Jesus, desperate for his mercy, unable to even draw near to him because of their uncleanness. Jesus gives instructions for the lepers to show themselves to the priests, which is a ritual stipulation from the law of Leviticus. Though the lepers are likely to have done this before (on the occasion when each first received the designation as unclean), they obey Jesus without question. As they are walking to see the priest, they are made clean. Ten came to Jesus, ten received this gift, but only one returned to the healer’s feet to give thanks with a heart full of gratitude.

This is a convicting story because we, as the readers, find ourselves confronted by Jesus’ question: “The others, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God?” Jesus’ inquiry sheds a stark light on the tendency of the majority to receive blessings without returning thanks. When read in conjunction with the Hebrew Bible lesson from the book of Deuteronomy, I know that I am one of the nine.

In the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses foretells the abundance that God will bring for the people of Israel when they take possession of the land of Canaan. These blessings are contingent, however, upon their obedience to God’s Law. If the people keep the commandments of the LORD, they will flourish in the land, with its flowing springs and field of wheat, its vines and its pomegranates, its milk and honey. In it, the people will lack nothing, thanks to the goodness of the LORD.

The people receive these words from Moses as they stand on the banks of the Jordan, after forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The possession of this land is still an impossible promise, though one that seems more and more real as they stand with the vision of it on the horizon. Their hearts are filled with hope and gratitude.

Appropriately, it was the story of the people of Israel inheriting the promised land that inspired the colonizing Pilgrims—famed celebrators of the first Thanksgiving—to come to America as inheritors themselves.

Thus when I hear these words of Moses that tell of God’s bounty for the people, I know that I stand on the other side of the promise. I am not waiting on the opposite bank of the promised land, but I have lived my whole life in it. I have never wanted for anything—I have always eaten my fill and lived with a roof over my head in a community that flows with modern-day milk and honey.

When Moses reminds the people to return thanks to God and remember God’s goodness in times of hardship once they have inherited the land, he is looking toward the future. But when the same reminder is put before me, I have to ask myself now, have I remembered to thank God? As one who dwells in the promised land of health, comfort, security, and well-being, have I extolled the name of the One who gave me this life?

When I sit down at my Thanksgiving table this Thursday, I will pray for strength of spirit to be that tenth leper, the one who returned to the feet of Jesus. I pray that I will look at the table of food that my mother will provide and see not just the richness of my own blessings but also the God who set them before me.

May the gratitude that we return this Thanksgiving overflow to all the days of our lives, so that God would never know a difference between the graces we offer on Thanksgiving and those that pour from our hearts at every moment. 

Whitney Pierce is in her third year of the Master of Divinity program at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. She is a candidate for deacon's orders in the United Methodist Church. 

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