A Family Thanksgiving

A Family Thanksgiving

by the Rev. Daniel Green, Priest in Charge at St. John's, Petaluma 

The bread and wine that we share when we gather for the liturgy do not make for much of a meal.  It is the prayers we offer, and the memory of Him who established this custom, and of those who have observed it down through the years and passed it down to us; it is the architecture of our worship spaces, the carved tables, the white linens and the silver vessels; and most especially, it is the community of our brothers and sisters in Christ, the faith and the hope and the love that we share, that make for a holy feast.

And something similar is true of the Thanksgiving meals some of us will eat this week with family and friends.   Whether we are speaking of the food that is eaten, the turkey, for instance, or some special family recipe that has been passed down for generations, or whether it is the table service, the heirloom objects that adorn and equip the table—in the context of this holiday, they are more than ordinary things.  They are symbols that convey a sense of the history of the family and its continuity and cohesion over time.

I have childhood memories of this kind of Thanksgiving dinner, a more traditional kind of family Thanksgiving.  I remember when I was a small child, traveling to Grandma Lenore’s apartment in Claremont, and the delicious food, the Royal Crown Derby porcelain and the green crystal goblets, the silver salt cellars and flatware and serving utensils.  After Grandma died, these same objects appeared on my mother’s table, along with the turkey and bread stuffing, the gravy and mashed potatoes, and the cranberry sauce.

But I left home at fifteen, and since then, my experience has been perhaps more typical of our post-modern generations.  I have had Thanksgiving dinner in literally dozens of different homes.  I have been the guest of many different families—friends, relatives, relatives of friends.  I have eaten Thanksgiving dinner in a Buddhist monastery, where the main course was nutloaf with yeast gravy.

And as I was thinking about this, it struck me that while the Gospels frequently describe Jesus at banquets, or wedding feasts, dining in the home of this Pharisee or that tax collector, nowhere do they tell of Jesus going home for a family dinner.  Most of the time, Jesus is a guest, and the few occasions where he is the host are especially significant.  These meals, such as when he feeds thousands in the wilderness, or when he gathers his disciples around him for a final supper at the time of the Passover, are, like our Thanksgiving dinners, rich with symbolism.  But it is not the symbolism of family tradition.  Rather, it is the symbolism of God’s faithfulness to Israel, of the tradition of being a covenant people, of the memory and promise of national liberation.  And the sovereign symbol in these stories is that of bread.  God’s covenant promise, fulfilled in Christ, is to be food for our bodies, nourishing and blessing them with the fruits of the earth, uniting our separate selves into one people under God’s righteous rule.

Some years ago, I attended an interfaith Thanksgiving celebration at the Unitarian Universalist Association in Monterey.  One of the speakers that night was a Muslim Imam, who spoke movingly of the significance of the Thanksgiving holiday for his family and American Muslims in general.  He said that Thanksgiving honors what is greatest and most beautiful about our country, because it is a family celebration and a national holiday at the same time.  Thursday, all across the United States, people will gather around their tables.  We will be people of different cultures and ethnicities, with many different native tongues.   We preserve different traditions and different ways of understanding and speaking of the divine.   But we are one in a common spirit of gratitude.  We are united in giving thanks for the blessings of our Creator, and the bounty of this North American continent.

This meaning is preserved in the beautiful story of the first Thanksgiving.  On the one hand it is the story of the survival of a small band of immigrants, a handful of families who celebrate their first successful harvest in a new land.  And at the same time, it is a tale of generosity and human solidarity across boundaries of language, culture, and religion.  It is a story of the true promise of our country.  This is the promise of a new kind of covenant people, a people united not only by common laws and shared democratic institutions, but also by gratitude for the abundance of God’s creation, and a commitment to share it equally and conserve it reverently.

Tragically, we know that we have often fallen far short of this promise.  The innocent harmony of the first Thanksgiving soon gave way to a bitter struggle between natives and immigrants, with blood shed on both sides.  Furthermore, the four centuries since then have not been kind to this continent we share.  As rightfully proud as we are of our many achievements, ours is a land of vanishing or extinct species, of depleted topsoil and drying aquifers, of polluted rivers and dying forests.  Some will say that this is just the price of progress, or hold out the hope that new technological breakthroughs will somehow enable us to continue to consume and foul the Earth with no day of reckoning.

But our Christian tradition holds out a different understanding.  It is the tradition of the covenant, which knows the land to be a blessing from the LORD, who heard the cry of a captive people and delivered them to a land flowing with milk and honey.  God gives the bounty of the Earth and commands us to celebrate the harvest with thanksgiving, together with the Levite and the alien residing in our midst.  It is the tradition of Jesus, who urges us not to work for the food that perishes, but for faith in him as the gift of the Father, the bread that satisfies our deepest hunger and nourishes us with eternal life.  This is the family tradition of a Eucharistic people, of a kingdom of priests from every tribe, family, language, and nation, bound together by the Spirit of God in prayers of gratitude for all creation, in a Thanksgiving feast that never ends.    


2 comments (Add your own)

1. Jones Jo wrote:
Beautiful and thought provoking
Full of meaning and reflection

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 10:55 AM

2. Charles Asher wrote:
Well put Daniel. Thanks. Charles

Fri, November 29, 2013 @ 7:16 PM

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