Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Note on Thanksgiving

Moses said to all Israel: For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you. ---Deut 8:7-10

As the holidays approach, it is increasingly common to hear two notes begin to sound in our culture. One urges us towards expense and enjoyment of all the good things we tend to look forward to at this time of year, as if we deserve some indulgence at the end of another difficult year. The other sounds a note of caution regarding consumerism and materialism, a tendency to focus on worldly goods to the detriment of the spiritual nature of the season, and what sometimes seems to be a kind of selfishness inherent to our festivities, as if the season is about getting what each one of us desires.

Of course, we are probably more likely to hear the latter note in most churches at this time, particularly as we move through the observances of Advent, which seems increasingly countercultural. But I am glad that Thanksgiving precedes Advent and, indeed, that Advent is “bookended” by both Thanksgiving and Christmas, both times of great celebration in our country. For I cannot help but think that we must learn to strike a balance between feast and fast, or gain some better understanding about the celebration of all things. At the very least, even to attempt to balance these two things will teach us much about ourselves and about the proper way to relate to the “goods” of life.

As we enter Advent, in the wake of Thanksgiving, I hope that we may hold in our hearts the vision which we see in the reading above from Deuteronomy 8. God brought his people Israel into a good land, brimming full of food and drink and resources, where they lacked nothing. And, if we read the next section of the chapter, it seems that the problem of which God’s people are warned ahead of time, is not always about over indulgence in the good things set before them, though this is surely true. Rather, it is in receiving these good things and suddenly failing to keep God’s commands, lacking gratitude for the good received, and imagining these goods stem from our own strength. As the passage then reads:

Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes... When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth." Deut 8:11-17.

Let us, then, remember the commandments of God and his grace as we enter our observance of Advent. Let us remember that we have received all good from God’s hand, and let us turn our hands to bringing that good to others, to those who have nothing and who are alone as much as to those whom we know and love. And let us give thanks to God for all things. 

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