Is Thanksgiving a secular holiday? Fox News posed that question in a headline story exactly 10 years ago. The answer is: Of course!
Thanksgiving encapsulates all the values of our consumer culture: A time to eat, a time to drink; a time to shop, a time to sleep in; a time for friends, a time to watch football. Forty-nine million of us will travel significant distances to be with loved ones this coming week. Forty-six million turkeys will be devoured along with 80 million pounds of cranberries. Everyone can partake - except, of course, those who don't have the money to eat, drink, or shop, or those who don't have a dwelling where sleeping in might be an attractive notion, or those who don't really don't have friends or family to be with or a place to watch football.
There are countless people here and across the country who spend their Thanksgiving not by consuming but by offering gifts of food or gifts of service. Our Lady of Assumption and the Overflowing Cup are among local faith-based organizations offering free Thanksgiving dinners this year. These initiatives embody the true spirit of thanks-giving. For the verb must have an object. One cannot "give thanks" without giving thanks to someone. Whether explicit or implied, it is always "I give you thanks," "thank you," not just "thanks" in the abstract. Thanks for turkey, thanks for cozy homes, thanks for jobs, thanks for family and friends.but thanks to whom?
In the beginning, there was no question. The first hint of what became our Thanksgiving tradition came in 1619 when a boat filled with English settlers came up the James River and docked at the new town of Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia. As mandated by the group's charter company, it was proclaimed that the day "shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God." The Puritans' 1621 harvest feast with the Wampanoag people of coastal Massachusetts was celebrated in this spirit, and two years later Governor William Bradford declared the last Thursday in November a time to "listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings."
Presidential proclamations have followed suit. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln urged the nation to be grateful for the blessings of world peace and American prosperity, despite being "in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity." He wrote, "No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God," heralding the last Thursday in November "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens." John F. Kennedy opened his 1961 proclamation with the first verse of Psalm 92, "It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord," while George W. Bush wrote that "Thanksgiving is a time for families and friends to gather together and express gratitude for all that we have been given, the freedoms we enjoy, and the loved ones who enrich our lives. We recognize that all of these blessings, and life itself, come not from the hand of man but from Almighty God."
There is evidence that American culture is hungering for something deeper than shopping. One often hears the lament, "Young people are just not coming to church anymore."
Bishop Mary Froiland of the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) begs to differ.
"Church is happening all over!" she said during a recent visit to Beloit. "It's just not in our buildings." Women are meeting in coffee houses to discuss the topic of hope: What gives you hope? Pub Theology groups are springing up at local establishments, where pastors make themselves available to answer any question that might be thrown at them: Why are we here? The ELCA's Youth Gathering every three years draws tens of thousands of exuberant teens from across the country. Pastors are finding that this age group is seeking meaning not in praise bands but in the rites and mystery of the church's historic liturgies.
Especially after recent events, there are so many questions that cannot be answered. All we can do is lay them at the feet of God, who through the Son knows the world's suffering in exquisite degree, and continues to love us through it all with words of assurance and hope. Whatever your belief system, try restoring the object to the act of "giving thanks" at your dinner table next week, and see where it leads.