Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Thanksgiving Reflection

I attempted this year in my Thanksgiving sermon to begin with the question: “What would America be like if Benjamin Franklin’s idea for the national bird, the Turkey, had won out over the Eagle?” I couldn’t seem to ever come up with more than the intriguing intro. One is tempted to go in all sorts of directions, very few patriotic. One is tempted to talk about the America of Isolationism (the cowardly “Turkey” America, unwilling to intrude into the private lives of other countries) versus the America of Imperialism (the Eagle, ready to swoop with talons and lex talionis in order to uphold Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctine and a world “safe for democracy”.) Such a sermon direction might be intriguing and provocative, but I am reminded of a similar sermon episode: A group of my classmates at Hillsdale on a junket (to Boston, I think) stopped at an Episcopal church because of the Bach cantata or some such classical mass-setting. They walked into the gray-haired, sparsely-seated church as a group and took up a whole pew, all except one young lady who, upon spying a woman in vestments, refused to enter the nave (the young lady later became Eastern Orthodox). The music was fine, but then a male priest got up and started preaching in a foppish voice about all the phallic symbols in war (this was just after 9/11), you know, obvious phallic symbols of belligerence – missiles, bullets, so on. The Hillsdale students, a whole pew full, all looked at each other and got up as one and walked out. Yes, such a sermon would not do on Thanksgiving.

Indeed, it is hard to be historical and be patriotic and catholic on Thanksgiving - not all at the same time anyway. No doubt, today, ecumenical services are preaching on how Thanksgiving is about, the Pilgrims came here for, Religious Freedom – nonsense. They came to establish an aquiline theocracy that made the Roman Catholic tyranny look like a Thanksgiving turkey. No. We have Pennsylvanians like Ben Franklin and Will Penn to thank for Religious Freedom, not quite the Pilgrims.

There is grave hypocrisy in the first Thanksgiving, grave hypocrisy and profound theology: The Puritans were Sabbatarians. They objected to Christmas, All Saints Day, even Easter – anything but the Sabbath. And the first thing they do when they come to America is initiate an extra-biblical feast day. They were turning into the Catholic Church, establishing extra-biblical feast days as a church! One Presbyterian theologian I heard speak said, “When your Catholic friends are celebrating Epiphany, tell them you have the Sabbath!” Ridiculous. The Old Testament is filled with feast days and fast days above and beyond the Sabbath.

Perhaps what the Puritans objected to was what so many Discovery-channel scholars want to remind us of, the pagan background to the Catholic Feasts - the Samhain of All Saints, the Solstice of Christmas. Certainly, America has historically, despite the “separation” of church and state, had national days of feasting and fasting. I overstate my case when I say that the Pilgrims were being hypocritical – but you get my point.

“Puritan” means to purify, to cleanse the Church of England from all idolatrous practices – bravo! I have no beef with that, so far as it goes. For them, All Saints, Christmas, even Easter, still had too much of the old pagan in it. But the Catholic tells the Puritan that he is wrong on that score. The problem with the feasts was and is that there was and is too much of sinful man in them, and I can prove it by talking about Thanksgiving.

For every Catholic Feast there is a dark side. Halloween and the Mexican Day of the Dead precedes, “prevents” All Saints. New Years’ Eve comes before Holy Circumcision. And there is a darkness throughout the time of Advent that is more than just penitential. Santa Claus has his dark ministers, his “Black Pedro” – if not his elves. Elves are fairies, like brownies, almost as mischievous as they are ministerial. We have, at Christmas time, “tales of ghost stories” – the flying dead people, and ghosts of Dickens. Harvest Festivals were nothing new in England, but even they are not purified – they still have the “Whitsun Morris Dancers”, who darken themselves and beat sticks against the darkness, especially before Pentecost; this the Puritan objected to and there were no Morris dancers at the first Thanksgiving.

But this is not some sort of Zoroastrian dualism. It is not that the light must have the darkness in order to be light. This dark side is man-as-man in the feast; that which the Puritan and the Catholic both wish to extinguish in the light of Christ-as-man in the feast. And at Thanksgiving, we have developed Black Friday in which “Black” is as incidental as Black Pedro or the darkened faces of Morris – or “Moorish” - dancers. Black means to get the store’s accounts back into the “Black” instead of the “Red.” Sure, but we know that it really is dark. It starts in the dark. It brings out greed – although not necessarily. This greed is man-as-man in the feast of Thanksgiving, instead of Christ-as-man and in man.

And this proves that when the Puritan targeted the paganism in the feasts of the reformed catholic Church of England, it was misguided, as Puritanism so often is. Thanksgiving is the new feast, the first feast of America, established by the Puritans themselves and now corrupted, after a fashion, by Black Friday. It is not corrupted by capitalism, as the Marxist claims, no less than by paganism as the Puritan is wont to claim – but by idolatry, greed, covetousness (but not necessarily!), which the Puritan and Catholic (but not the Marxist) can both agree has no place in the feasts of the “holiday season.”

This is why the Turkey might just be a good image for Thanksgiving, this feast to begin the season of wintry feasts. The Gospel for today, established by the American [Anglican/Episcopal] Church is “consider the lilies of the field.” That is why the Turkey is perhaps a great image for Thanksgiving and for the America of Thanksgiving. It is because the Turkey, less than the Eagle, seeks (in a more obvious way) what the Lord has provided for him: The Turkey pecks around on the ground. The “birds of the air” of today’s Gospel receive what the Lord gives; they do not grasp and claw and snatch at it. (Of course, the zoologist says that they do, but you know what I mean.) They do not worry – while we worry too much throughout the Holiday Season about time, money, and “plastic stuff for Johnny”, as Dave Ramsey would say. The Turkey seems to grow fat by free grazing, because “contentment with godliness is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6). So being like the Turkey in this respect is seeking Christ-as-man in the Season, allowing Christ to purify it, instead of letting man-as-man defile it. And this is, in fact, what I did end up preaching about today.

No comments:

Post a Comment