Thanksgiving is as close as we get to a religious holiday in the United States. You might think it would be Christmas, but a lot of the religion has been dropped from this celebration.
Thanksgiving, on the other hand, manages to impress its ritualistic self on our lives every year, and has never had an association with the church.
Thanksgiving does involve a ritual: food. And the menu is the same: turkey and "all the trimmings". Usually this is stuffing (variably called "dressing"), gravy, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. Midwesterners often like to complement this with a casserole and/or a Jello salad or two.
This ritual is national; there are very few people who don't participate. People who live most of the year alone are usually invited to participate by neighbors or a "meals on wheels" program. Thanksgiving is preceded by the busiest travel day of the year in this country. Everyone has to be with his own community, his own family. That everyone be included in this feast is an important part of a national consciousness.
Once the inclusion occurs, however, the guests tend to find fault with one another. "All the trimmings" means different things to different people, and many a disagreement has arisen over the exact contents of the stuffing. Celery? Raisins? Cranberries? Suddenly, the idea of inclusion is lost in the search for specifics.
But this is as unnecessary as it is inevitable. Everyone will be fed; that's the whole point of the feast.
What's in the stuffing is ultimately not important, but it is important that the hungry are fed, and justice is done.
But not everyone will agree with everyone else. That's part of living in community. Feasting communities in particular are prone to argument.
Just look at the church, for instance. Here's a community that's been sharing feasts with each other, weekly, for about 2000 years. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word for "thanksgiving":
Facing the people, the Celebrant says the following Invitation
The Gifts of God for the People of God.
and may add
Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.
Most of the time that the church has been feasting, it has been having one argument or another. Whether it's seen in the writings of Paul, or the Council of Nicea, Vatican II ("The Return of the Pope"), General Convention 2006 ("The Return of Gene Robinson") conflict has been a part of the gathered community. The feasting, however, continues.
And so it is with our meals. We are surprised when we argue, but this is what families do. The meal, however, is still served.
And once it is served and eaten, we are made whole. We become closer to one another, through our food, through conversation, through the inclusion of outsiders, we are all collected into one coherent national entity.
Our civil ritual gives us a glimpse of God's kingdom, even if we don't realize that's what it is that we're seeing. And then retailers capitalize on that good feeling by opening their doors and offering really low prices soon after that meal is over.
"If only we can grab on to this moment with some stuff!" Or, "All that fighting made me feel sick. This stuff will help!" Or, "This Thanksgiving didn't feel like my childhood memories. I'll have to buy some stuff so that Christmas does."
Or whatever. However it is that each of us is conditioned to do this, it seems to me that the ritual plays a large part.
After the communion meal, Christians go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
After Thanksgiving, Americans go forth, rejoicing in the power of credit.
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