it's upon us. It seems only yesterday that we were back from our summer vacations,
and the long weeks of fall seemed to stretch before us almost without end. But
now it's practically Thanksgiving, and Christmas is soon to follow.
Thanksgiving draws near, we are very much aware of the arrangements that must
be made for the celebration. Grocery shopping, guests to be invited, travel arrangements
to be confirmed, calculations on the cooking of the bird. For most of us the machinery
of Thanksgiving has already been set into motion, and in just a few days we will
sit down to share a Thanksgiving supper. But as Christians we must ask, what is
the inner meaning of this holiday? What is the fitting symbol of Thanksgiving?
A traveler from Mars, looking down upon millions of homes across America
this Thanksgiving morning might easily be confused. For the sight of all those
faces, those wide eyes, those expressions of wonder and delight as the turkey
is brought to the table might lead our Martian visitor to the hasty conclusion
that we gather each year to worship the turkey goddess.
Indeed for some
people the turkey is the essence of this day. And not without reason. The wild
turkeys which were consumed that first Thanksgiving were a proud an noble work:
rugged, feisty, strong flying birds. The wild turkey could soar for miles in graceful
flight. But what a pathetic symbol our modern domesticated bird has become. This
animal is tied securely to earth by its sheer size. It is fitted with short legs,
stocky neck, bloated body, a microscopic brain. Which may help to explain the
popular saying: "He's as dumb as a turkey."
"They are the
dumbest birds in all the world," comments one turkey breeder. "They
don't realize how big they are and are easily bullied by chickens and ducks. Given
the opportunity, the chickens will immediately run through an open gate to grange,
but the turkeys will run back and forth along the fence, looking for a way out,
but never reaching the gate." When they are young, you have to put marbles
in their food pans to teach them to eat. They'll peck at the shiny objects and
finally get some feed by accident. Even rain is a mortal enemy. The turkeys are
apt to raise their heads and open their beaks to drink the rain water, and if
they are not driven into shelter, they will stand that way, with their mouths
wide open until they drown.
the turkey is not an entirely fitting symbol for Thanksgiving. Perhaps are more
fitting symbol of Thanksgiving would be that picture postcard image we all hold
of that first Thanksgiving feast. There stand the hearty Pilgrims, gathered around
the fruit of the harvest. Bound by a common faith, they seem the very image of
fortitude in the face of adversity.
As we look back across these 300 years
and compare their situation with our own, its tempting to be nostalgic about the
past. If we could only find the courage and the confidence which made that first
Thanksgiving possible, perhaps our problems would seem less daunting. But wait
just a minute, before we are carried away by nostalgia, it might serve us well
to take a closer look at the reality that lies hidden behind those greeting card
images of Thanksgiving.
In the first place, the Puritans were a minority
in the settlements of Plymouth and Salem. Little more than a third of the passengers
on the Mayflower had come to this land seeking religious freedom. The rest had
been hired on the streets of London by wealthy financiers who hoped to reap a
profit from this adventure in the New World. Most of the passengers had come along
simply because they could not find employment in London and this was the best
pay they could get. Most of the Mayflower passengers came for the ranks of the
homeless and the unemployed.
The historic Mayflower compact was forced
upon these workers by a Puritan minority who ruled with unswerving authority.
Democracy, freedom of choice, equal opportunity, these are relatively modern ideas
which would have scandalized our Puritan ancestors. Take for example, John Winthrop,
first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Far from seeking religious freedom,
he wanted power to set up a government where his religion would be imposed upon
the whole population. These ambitions had been frustrated in England because in
1630 the Puritans were out of power.
This gentleman would have found our
concept of democracy distasteful in the extreme. For he believed in a divinely
ordained social order. By the will of God, he believed, the rich wold continue
to be rich and the poor would remain poor, forever frozen at the bottom of the
social order. He did not even believe the poor should have the right to vote.
And he fought a long and hard battle in the new world to suppress what he thought
to be the pernicious idea of universal suffrage.
Just before disembarking
from the good ship Arabella, Winthrop delivered himself of a sermon to the passengers
gathered before him on the deck. His sermon was titled: A Model of Christian Charity.
But it began with these stark words: "God Almighty in his most holy providence
has so disposed the condition of mankind as in all times some must be rich, some
poor, some high in power...others in subjection."
That's a reasonable
sermon to give if you're the wealthy aristocrat, but I suspect that the crew was
somewhat less than ecstatic about his thundering oration. Moreover, February 22,
1631, the date that marked the first official Thanksgiving, was not a day of celebration
as we imagine. It was a day of fasting, a time for sober reflection. For the leaders
of Massachusetts Bay did not want a recurrence of the feast that had taken place
the previous fall. The Puritans preferred to fast. Give thanks to God, but give
up the food and drink that we have come to associate with Thanksgiving. They would
have seen our typical Thanksgiving supper as a sign of moral decadence and decay.
In fact, the people who bowed their heads in the makeshift chapels of Massachusetts
during the fast days of 1631 were there by order of the Governor himself. Anyone
counted absent from worship could have been tried in the courts, because failure
to attend church was an offense punishable by law. On second thought, those picture
postcard images of the first Thanksgiving may not be an entirely fitting symbol
for this holiday either.
what about the horn of plenty? Is the essence of this holiday a matter of giving
thanks for the many material blessings we have received over the months gone by?
Do we give thanks simply because we have enough food to eat, because our bank
accounts are balanced, because we enjoy a measure of affluence equaled by few
in the entire world?
The gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Day (Luke 12: 13-21)
that is read in many of our churches seems to dispel this understanding of Thanksgiving
as well. In the parable of the "rich fool," Jesus tells the story of
a man whose horn of plenty is filled to overflowing. Here is a man who has much
to be thankful for. He has been blessed by success in business. In fact, he has
had so much success that he has to construct a row of large warehouses to store
his surplus crops.
The parable captures our man giving thanks on the very
day these new warehouses are complete. We catch him almost gloating to himself:
"Yes, sir, you have ample goods for many years, take your ease, eat, drink
and be merry," he says to himself. We picture him puffing with satisfaction
after a hearty meal. But his thanksgiving celebration is interrupted later that
night by a vision or a dream. Think how terrifying it would be to wake up in the
middle of the night and hear the voice of God Almighty saying to you as God does
to the man in this parable, "Fool! This night your soul is required of you.
All these things that you have prepared for yourself, who will they belong to
And Jesus concludes the parable: "So is he who lays up
treasure for himself and is not rich towards God." This parable presents
a stark but simple choice. Either we build up treasures for self, earthen treasures
which in the end have no value or we turn our focus outward, beyond the self,
becoming rich in the eyes of God. But what precisely does it mean to become wealthy
in God's sight? The treasures of this world can be counted and measured. One can
call up the local bank to find very precise information about a person's cash
flow; a credit agency can give you the details about a person's treasure on earth.
But how do we take the measure of spiritual wealth?
Certainly the depth
of our faith cannot be measured by the superficial smiles we have been trained
to wear in public places; certainly the quality of our faith cannot be guaranteed
by verbal assurances that all things are bright and beautiful. The path toward
God may be filled with obstacles; there may be suffering and pain along the way.
After all, that was true of Jesus Christ himself.
Remember that lonely
night in Gethsemene. He too heard the death knoll sound. This night shall your
soul be required. And he knew is was not just the soul which was being put to
the test. His body too was broken.
It is my responsibility as a Christian
minister to remind you that the central symbol of our faith is not the horn of
plenty but precisely the cross of suffering. In the final hours of his life, Jesus
could count no earthen treasures. In fact, he had been stripped to all the blessings
we count as necessary for a happy life. He had no home and no career. His family
had been estranged from him. In his hour of need even his closest friends had
betrayed him. His body was broken and his spirit was crushed. As the Scriptures
put it so poetically: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have trees,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." By all human reckoning at
that moment of suffering he was alone. Yet he was not alone. For in fact he was
acting out in all its stark simplicity the drama of our lives.
strip away every illusion of success. When all earthen treasures fail. There is
only one thing remaining, but that is the greatest treasure of all, the love of
God our Creator.
If we are to celebrate thanksgiving with prayers of praise
that will not fade. If we are to give thanks with smiles that are more than superficial,
we must set our priorities straight. The essence of Thanksgiving is not to be
found in the cost of the goods and services that may fill our horn of plenty.
The important things are the resources we bring to adversity. What strength can
we call upon when these earthen treasure fail? What answer do we have when, in
the dark night of the soul, our very lives are required?
The problem for
may of us is that we allow the process of counting our blessings to deteriorate
into the habit of counting upon our blessings. We are proud, rightly proud, to
be the richest nation on earth. But we are anxious, overly anxious, to maintain
our privileges and power. We are proud, rightly proud, of our personal achievements,
but we are anxious, overly anxious to maintain an image of success. We are threatened
buy the vicissitudes of job or career, endangered by the uncertainties of the
economy, worried by the loss of health and vitality. When the act of counting
our blessings leads to the anxious condition of counting upon our blessings then
the meaning of thanksgiving is diminished.
But according to Biblical witness
thanksgiving is something we do when the troubles of the world are still very
much with us. It's not a question of waiting for that moment of euphoria when
you seem to be carried away on a crescendo of good feeling. To give thanks is
to take up the tangled threads of your life and present them to God come what
may. Thanksgiving involves an act of the will. It's not a question of pretending
that everything is bright an beautiful when you know its not.
To give thanks
is to stand up in the face of the storm and declare that life is worth living.
To give thanks is to assert that the whole of creation is one great act of God's
love. May we give thanks this Thanksgiving, not because all things are good or
easy, but simply because we know that this troubled world with all its evil and
all its good is cradled in the arms of a loving God. Amen.
Thanksgiving: Mirror Unto The Soul of a Nation
"A nation divided cannot stand," said Abraham Lincoln, paraphrasing Scripture. But with a bit of luck, some ordinary patience and understanding, and a touch of grace, it can. Here's how.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.