Monday, November 28, 2011

Restoring a Proper Thanksgiving Balance

Dear Parish Faithful Friends in Christ,

In an article entitled “A Moveable Fast,” the scholar Elyssa East summarized the history of our American Thanksgiving, and the intentions and practices of the early New England colonists toward this national feast. Initially, she writes,Thanksgiving was built around the Christian rhythm of fasting and feasting. Bearing that in mind, she also offered her own commentary on how this national celebration has changed over the years:

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.

This sounds like a fair commentary on how the past Thanksgiving Day holiday weekend is now approached and practiced by contemporary Americans. What adds further to this confusion is not simply the matter of anticipating a good feast on Thanksgiving Day and enjoying the guilty pleasure of over-eating together with family and friends; but the fact that “overconsumption” and “indulgence” are hardly limited to one day’s big meal. Those terms are now more appropriately directed toward “Black Friday” (not sure what the term means) and today’s “Cyber Monday.” There seems to be a perceptible shift away from the food feast toward the frenzy of shopping and spending with a zeal that would possibly be admirable if it was only directed toward something not so openly and unabashedly self-indulgent. The only restraint is in the size of one’s pocketbook; but if that empties out there is always the credit card! We may soon reach the point when our neighbor will no longer greet us with the conventional “have a happy Thanksgiving.” Rather, it may become “have a successful Black Friday!” Clearly, a sense of balance and proportion has disappeared from the lives of many Americans, as consumerism displaces a sense of thanksgiving.

Over the last four days what predominated in your lives as Orthodox Christians? Did you fail to come to church for one of the Thanksgiving Day services but somehow manage to be “out and about” at the stores for Black Friday? If so, how did that happen? How does such a choice hold up to your theoretical priorities? Are we better described as Eucharistic beings or as consumers? When presented with a choice, will it be for the Church and what the Church represents; or will it be “the world” and what the world represents?

I realize that it is easy to be critical of our consumer-driven society. And perhaps priests and pastors “over-indulge” in just such a predictable routine. My intention, at least, is not to moralize or chastise. After all, I am also a consumer! Rather, I am more-or-less thinking out loud, and sharing the questions raised by such thinking. Now that the holiday weekend is behind us, can we “pick up where we left off?” That further question only makes sense if indeed we had begun to observe the Nativity Fast in anticipation and preparation for the Feast on December 25, and then postponed that effort for the weekend that we just enjoyed. Now that we are returning to the normal routines of our daily lives, do we have the strength and commitment to embrace “the Orthodox Way” of life that understands only too well the pitfalls and temptations of overconsumption and indulgence?

The “battle of the calendars” is perhaps never so fierce as during these last few weeks before Christmas. We can do the “jingle-bell rock,” or we can curb our passions. When we were baptized – no matter how many years ago - we prayed that God would strengthen us as “invincible warriors of Christ our God;” and that we would “keep the Orthodox Faith.” That vocation is tested on a daily basis – including this particular day.

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