By Fr. John Parker
Appeared in the Moultrie News on 16 November 2005
If your household is like mine when I was growing up, Thanksgiving Day was an occasion of significant liturgy—a sacred family ritual repeated annually. At least from the time of my early teens, I remember arising on that Thursday every November as if it were a Sunday. Already my parents would have been working for a few hours preparing and stuffing the turkey which would begin to cook while we were off at church. Because of the inherent Christian themes of the holiday, without question we would attend the church service where we would sing those hymns which have become so famous around this celebration: “Come, ye thankful people, come…” The priest would wear his stole with the wheat and wine motif, evidence of our thanks for the harvest, with overt theological reference to the bread and wine of communion.
After church we would race home to check the turkey, whose pleasant, basted aroma had already filled the house in our absence. My mother would prepare the rest of the ritual meal, which remains nearly unchanged to this day: candied sweet potatoes served with marshmallows; green bean casserole topped with crispy, Durkee fried onions; curried fruit, cranberry sauce, and pitted black olives. There were only three times a year that we used my great-grandmother’s fine china: Christmas, Easter, and today. My younger brother and I were even given the privilege of drinking our milk or soda from the beautiful antique crystal glasses, whose rims were encircled in real gold. (They never went in the dishwasher!)
Equally a part of all this ritual was the watching of football, the removing of the electric carving knife—still in its original 1968 box, the sampling of the hot turkey put out to cool, and the pilfering of olives one by one before dinner (between my father and me). This, of course, was always followed by the rhetorical question, “Okay, who has eaten all the olives?”
Once the meal was served, we were seated. My father always said grace, beginning with his oft repeated words, “We thank Thee, Heavenly Father for all the many blessings…” Thereafter we would gorge ourselves, as if there weren’t going to be 10 pounds of turkey-and-fixins left over for tomorrow. Following supper, we would make room for two or three varieties of pie, topped with ice cream. The inevitable statement would finally be made: “I’ll never eat again.”
More and more in these United States, we know what it is to feast. Whether it be a Thanksgiving meal as I have described above (which is probably ‘average’) or a regular meal at a restaurant (where one plate could serve two or three), indulgence is on the rise. It is seen in our meals, in our house and car purchases, in our discretionary spending—feasting on ‘prosperity’. Indeed, even flat-screen and plasma televisions are becoming the norm, along with paying upwards of $100 a month for varying cable or satellite tv service.
But do we know truly what it is to feast? There is a teaching which says that one cannot know what it is to feast unless he or she knows what it is to fast—to lack, to be in need, especially voluntarily. If the plate is always more than full, if the cup always ‘runneth over’, if there is never a need, do we actually feast? Or has our feasting, once rooted in true thankfulness, morphed ever so subtly into gluttony in all facets of life?
Fasting—self-denial in general—is an all-but-forgotten practice in our society today. We are told by clever marketers that we “deserve” all kinds of things: a bigger house, a newer car, a fuller plate, a more lavish vacation. And to assist us in obtaining all that we “deserve”, sly money-lenders will give us all the credit we want in order to buy things now. I even noticed that one can use a ‘pay-pass’ at McDonald’s, originally designed to help streamline traffic on heavily traveled toll roads. One doesn’t even have to wait the short amount of time we once had to for a fast food burger.
Fasting and self-denial are not ends in and of themselves. The purpose of fasting is not to diet or to drop a few pounds, even though with fasting comes a certain weight loss. The goal of self-denial is not to pat oneself on the back and say, “hey, I went 40 days without eating meat.” Believe it or not, though, there is much that we truly can go without! Rather, the aims of these disciplines are these: to soften the heart, to open our eyes to see true need, to teach our tongue to speak words that build up and don’t tear down, to teach us that we control our stomachs and bodies—rather than our stomachs and bodies governing us.
If we are truly thankful, especially at this sacred time on our secular calendar, then let us show such gratitude not in word only, but also in deed. Yes, let us gather together in families and neighborhoods, enjoying one another’s company and thanking God, from whom all blessings flow. But let us not forget to fast in all sincerity—to deny ourselves for some length time, to break the bonds of instant gratification, in order to have our eyes and ears and hearts and wallets open to those in need—those who have no full choice regarding hunger, clothing, shelter, and basic human needs. And the occasions of such self-denial, let our prayer be, “O Lord, I thank you today that I am hungry by choice. Grant me through your abundant grace to go into my community and to share freely all that You have freely given me, that I may know truly what it is to feast, at the never ending Heavenly Banquet in your Kingdom. Amen.”