Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
A few years ago I ran across an op-ed piece in our newspaper titled "A Moveable Fast" by Elyssa East. Such a title in a well-known urban secular publication was a bit intriguing, especially since the article's concluding paragraph 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, albeit brief, 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 His likeness, our life in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We celebrate that service of thanksgiving — the Eucharist — 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, just as we engage in the festal Thanksgiving Day table in our homes, we continually 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 includes a fascinating historical sketch of the mind and practices of the early Puritans in 17th century 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 Who 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 survival experienced by these early Puritans further influenced some of their bleak theological conclusions. However, some of our practices may coincide. The author 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 as Orthodox Christians, however, is not based on a fearful notion of appeasing God; rather, it is 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" [Matthew 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 few 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 1660s that the New England colonies began holding an 'Annual Provincial Thanksgiving,'" she writes.
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 know to Whom we offer our thanksgiving and why — not only on Thanksgiving Day, but at every Eucharistic Divine Liturgy. 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," 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.
We have a wonderful opportunity to begin our Day of Thanksgiving by first attending the Divine Liturgy on Thursday morning at 9:30 a.m.