Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The meaning of Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving evokes a complex set of memories. Some of the memories center on our family celebrations. My mother took pride and pleasure in preparing a sumptuous meal for her family, served on the best china, symbolizing the specialness of the day and the people. Even in years when my great aunt would host the family Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant, my mother would prepare her traditional meal on another day, a meal that all of us truly relished.

Some of the memories involve family lore. My great aunt claimed that my father’s family (her family) could trace its lineage back to the Mayflower. She was proud of belonging to the Daughters of the American Revolution and gave my father a lifetime membership in the Sons of the American Revolution. Since her death, I’ve wondered if her claim about the Mayflower was more wishful than fact. Otherwise, why had she not documented the lineage and joined an association of Mayflower descendants?

If my family did arrive on the Mayflower, we were among the first illegal immigrants to enter the continent. Explorers planting a flag and declaring that the land belonged to their monarch completely usurped the land’s true owners, the Native Americans. Therefore, a charter granted by one of those monarchs – the King of England – was meaningless, unable to change theft into legitimacy. The Mayflower immigrants – and I’ve visited their place of departure in Plymouth, England, and place of arrival in Plymouth, Massachusetts – sought a better life. The better life they desired included both the freedom to worship in accordance with their belief and by greater prosperity. The initial welcome the Pilgrims received from the Natives was much warmer than the one we extend to illegal immigrants today, although they too aspire to greater freedom and prosperity.

Contemporary Thanksgiving observances bear little relation to the meal from which the tradition grew. The original feast did not happen on a day filled with gladiatorial combat (aka football) nor precede the year’s busiest shopping day. The original feast was, based on available evidence, substantial but not a day of gluttony. And, most significantly, the Pilgrims discerned in the Natives gracious gifts of food and in the harvest of their crops evidence of God blessing their endeavor to build new lives in North America. Moderns consumer factory reared turkeys, amuse themselves watching, perhaps even attempting to play, football, but largely ignore God.

Whether the unwarranted suffering of victims of famine, pestilence, disease, genocide, or something else, suffering starkly warns us against overly facile identifications of God's blessings with the good things in life. Instead, discerning God's presence requires courage and wisdom. We need courage because we live in a polarized world with little dialogue between postmodern atheists and ardent theists. We need wisdom because the true God is one, who if named, is no longer the ultimate but a human creation. Places in which to look when seeking to discern God include beauty, acts of love, moments of creativity, and freedom. In such places and moments, it’s possible to sense the activity of something greater than self, something inexpressible in human language. Giving thanks for this abiding presence is the real theological meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday, the reason that many Christians appropriately think of Thanksgiving as a religious holiday.

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