The world as we knew it has ended. We should have known we were in trouble when there were no more “Thanksgiving weekend” sales. When Black Friday became a day of observance in its own right, no longer requiring a tangential reference to the preceding day for its legitimacy, we should have wept aloud. Midnight doorbusters at the end of November as a bigger deal than midnight mass at the end of December should have had us in sackcloth and ashes in preemptive mourning for the death of the culture. Now we see the Black Friday deals beginning before midnight, indeed, during the normal business hours on the day before, the Thanksgiving Day before. Pass the black armbands. Thanksgiving is dead.
Now, I don’t begrudge folks the fun of holiday shopping. My wife is among the crazy folks out there for midnight deals these past years. Who with children can pass up the bargains? But couldn’t we have just one day, one whole day to be thankful before we go out into the night grasping for more? Have we lost all sense of restraint? Don’t we have enough for which to be thankful to keep Thanksgiving Day and its own rituals important, maybe even sacred, in their own right? Is our impatience to shop a sign of an expanding national thanklessness? If so, how has this happened to us?
Well, I think it’s important to keep in mind that Thanksgiving has always been, like the gobbler itself, a funny bird. It’s a secular holiday, having arisen out of our particular national history. It’s not a religious holiday at all, having no roots to the ancient church, to any event in the life of Christ, or connection to any of the seasons of our Kingdom’s observances. Thanksgiving is, though, a secular holiday that can only be truly kept by a religious people. And it is the irreligiousness of our celebrations of this secular day that has killed it. We have so neglected the religious core of the day that we can’t even offer any coherence as to its purpose. Pilgrims and Indians aside (one man’s providence is often another’s exploitation, and so no politically correct schoolchild can dress in buckles or feathers anymore), David Barton and that crowd aside, it’s not just our historical narrative that we’ve lost in relation to Thanksgiving: it’s the one-line stated purpose for Thanksgiving that we have gotten wrong.
We hear each year that Thanksgiving is about giving thanks. So far, so good. Seems even obvious. But what folks really mean is that they are thankful for things. Well, we do have a lot of good things, so this is not of itself problematic. What is problematic is the utter impossibility of being thankful for anything without being thankful to someone for it. Thanks implies gift. Gift implies giver. I never thank myself for my paycheck. I don’t even send a card to thank the boss. I earned the check, after all. It was no gift, no act of grace. My relationship with the boss is purely quid pro quo. Conversely I am thankful for birthday presents. Aunty So-and-So gives a gift simply because she likes me and enjoys the fact that I was born. Thanks, Aunty So-and-So. You shouldn’t have, as in, I didn’t earn it, as in, this gift is mine by your sheer graciousness.
If I am thankful for something, it means I recognize it as a grace. What makes Christians grateful, not just gratified, for their paychecks is that they see their lives – even their abilities and efforts – as coming to them undeserved from a benevolent God. We can’t be generically thankful into the wind! If we have a thing there is a giver of that thing. We recognize life as God’s gracious gift. I can love my wife and kids, but I can’t be thankful to them for themselves. I can only be grateful for them to God. Thus even a Thanksgiving spent with family cannot rightly be about family. It must be about God.
When we forgot as a nation to whom we were thankful, we lost the means for giving thanks. The day and its rituals ring hollow. And so we have to go shopping for more stuff for which to feign a general thankfulness. We attempt satiation without the means for satisfaction. Our secular holiday was only possible for a religious people to keep.
Don’t be thankful, folks; give thanks. Don’t just eat; hold a holy festival. Don’t just pray before you eat; say grace. And receive graciously. Let’s remember Wesley’s grace, one my family often sings before meals to the tune of the Doxology:
Be present at our table, Lord.
Be here and everywhere adored.
These mercies bless, and grant that we
may feast in fellowship with Thee. Amen.