Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Gathering Together in Thanks and Praise

Dear Parish Faithful,

I paused this morning to read an Op-Ed piece by the title of "A Moveable Fast," by Elyssa East. Such a title in a well-known urban newspaper characterized by its secularism was a bit intriguing. The concluding paragraph of this article can be read in an "Orthodox manner" without a great deal of manipulation:

In the nearly 400 years since the first Thanksgiving, the holiday has come to mirror our transformation into a nation of gross overconsumption, but the New England colonists never intended for Thanksgiving to be a day of gluttony. They dished up restraint along with gratitude as a shared main course. What mattered most was not the feast itself, but the gathering together in thanks and praise for life's most humble gifts. Perhaps this holiday season we could benefit from restoring a proper Thanksgiving balance between forbearance and indulgence.

In other words, the uneasy alliance that has formed over the years between Thanksgiving and indulgence does not properly capture the meaning of this national holiday. For Thanksgiving to be properly "observed" a "gathering together in thanks and praise" is the most appropriate response. This is a good short definition of what we do in the Divine Liturgy. The Eucharist is about our thanksgiving to God not only for what we may have, but for who we actually are as the People of God in the process of growing in the likeness of God through our life in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We celebrate that service of thanksgiving - Eucharist - every year on Thanksgiving Day so that we may realize our vocation as "eucharistic beings," and not as mere "consumers." For those who like theological jargon, our anthropology is maximalist, not minimalist. So before we engage in the indulgence of a festal table in our homes, we first make the effort to receive the eucharistic food from the altar table in a spirit of praise and thanksgiving. And we do so joyfully and eagerly.

Elyssa East's Op-Ed article is a fascinating historical sketch of the mind and practices of the early Puritans in 17th c. New England. Fasting and feasting were part of their way of life. Admittedly, I would acknowledge that the "Orthodox ethos" and the "Puritan ethos" are as far apart as one could imagine. There is the saying that a Puritan is a person who is afraid that someone, somewhere, and for some reason is actually enjoying himself! The Calvinist conception of an angry God that needs to be appeased before He acts swiftly through punishment does not resonate for Orthodox Christians. And we thank our merciful God for that. Perhaps the harsh environment and struggle for survivals of these early Puritans further influenced some of their bleak theological conclusions. However, some of our practices may coincide. East relates that the Puritans' fear of "excessive rains from the bottles of heaven," in addition to "epidemics, crop infestations, the Indian wars and other hardships," led them to call for community-wide days of fasting or a "day of public humiliation and prayer." She further writes:

According to the 19th-century historian William DeLove, the New England colonies celebrated as many as nine such "special public days" a year from 1620-1700. And as the Puritans were masters of self-denial, days of abstention outnumbered thanksgivings two to one. Fasting, Cotton Mather wrote, "kept the wheel of prayer in continual motion".

Our fasting is not based on a fearful notion of appeasing God, but is rather a freely-chosen ascetical effort of self-discipline so as to actualize the words of the Lord when He fasted in the desert: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." (MATT. 4:4) The rhythm of fasting and feasting is directed by our liturgical calendar, as we are now fasting in preparation for the Feast of the Nativity. We are, however, granted a hierarchical "dispensation" on Thanksgiving Day to "break the fast" in order to celebrate this national holiday as Americans. Actually, the Orthodox can hold their own with any other religiously-based culture when it comes to feasting. We have a great deal to feast about when we reflect upon the "divine economy!" Yet even feasting is not about "gross overconsumption" and mere indulgence.

A couple more of Elyssa East's paragraphs help us understand the historical, cultural and religious background of our Thanksgiving Day celebration:

It was in the late 1660's that the New England colonies began holding an "Annual Provincial Thanksgiving." The holiday we celebrate today is a remnant of this harvest feast, which was theologically counterbalanced by an annual spring fast around the time of planting to ask God's good favor for the year. Yet fasting and praying also immediately preceded the harvest Thanksgiving. In 1690, in Massachusetts the feast itself was postponed, though not the fasting, out of extraordinary concern that the meal would inspire too much "carnal confidence.

As life in the New World wilderness got easier, the New England colonies gradually began holding only their annual spring fast and fall harvest feast. Even after Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, Massachusetts continued to celebrate its spring day of abstention for 31 more years.

As "right believing" Christians we need to insure that our Thanksgiving Day Liturgy is a true parish event and not merely an incidental service meant for a pious few. We know to Whom we offer our thanksgiving and why. As the "royal priesthood" of believers it is our responsibility to hold up the world in prayer before God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If this national holiday is now characterized by "gross overconsumption," as East contends, that does not mean that we need to follow such a pattern when we have the opportunity to thank and praise God before we share our domestic meals together. Perhaps a properly understood "fear of God" can be spiritually healthy when we contemplate our choices.

The Divine Liturgy will begin at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday morning.

Fr. Steven

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