Extending Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving or Advent?
Thanksgiving or Advent, there is always lively debate in our family about what signifies the beginning of the holiday season, indicating when it is appropriate to play Christmas music and put up the tree. In spite of its colonizing roots, the spirit of Thanksgiving is one of gratitude, gathering, and generosity. Advent shifts focus to the celebration and anticipation of Christ’s coming.

Our family does Christmas on a grand scale with so many quirky family traditions it can be hard to fit them all in around all the church activities and gatherings of friends. Retail stores, driven by the need to improve their bottom line, now display Christmas trees next to patio furniture and candy canes alongside the trick-or-treat candy. This year, I received a holiday gift catalog in early October, followed by pre-Black Friday sales ads. We all tend to groan about the hyper-consumerism that engulfs Christmas, and many of us develop personal or family practices to resist the tide and keep Christ at the center or at least ensure that we display the nativity as prominently as the Elf on the Shelf.

The draw and distraction of shiny things is nothing new. A thousand years ago, during a time of expansive church corruption when the clergy purchased their positions rather than humbly responding to God’s call, there were people who resisted the downward pull and chose to embrace a life of simplicity that found its satisfaction in the love of God. One such man was Bernard of Clairvaux, a gifted, charismatic speaker who, had he lived a thousand years later, would have been either the pastor of a mega-church or a politician.

Bernard was a complex man whose inner life with God often contradicted his public life where he spoke convincingly in favor of the second crusade. In comparison, his contemplative spiritual writings lay bare the emptiness and exhaustion which characterize a culture defined by consumerism. He writes, “A man of great wealth envies anyone richer than he… What about men promoted to high honors? Do we not see them striving more and more in an insatiable ambition to go higher still? There is no end to all this because no single one of these riches can be held to be the highest or the best.” His insights reveal the trap of consumerism- never being satisfied. “[T]he law of a man’s desire which makes him want what he lacks in place of what he has” works in opposition to the law of love. People develop a hunger and taste for what they lack, which blinds them from enjoying the sweetness and beauty of the blessings, mercy, love, and grace already in their possession.

Ironically, in America, we have become accustomed to marketing gurus exploiting and stimulating our taste for what we lack during the time of year set aside for practicing contentment and gratitude. To further demonstrate the prophetic and insightful nature of Bernard’s observations, he describes how this taste for lack puppets us, “the restless mind, running to and fro among the pleasures of life, is tired out but never satisfied.” How many of us can relate to this feeling bubbling below the surface throughout the holiday season? Rather than extending the madness of the Christmas season, I believe the antidote to this condition is extending Thanksgiving.

What if extending Thanksgiving could be more than leftover turkey and mashed potatoes? What if a practice of gratitude were to accompany the traditions of gathering and generosity that continue through Christmas? Gratitude cannot exist in the same space as hunger for lack. The practice of gratitude requires us to enter a place of rest, peace, and reflection from which we refuse to be hurried.

All four Gospels record the story of Jesus giving thanks for a few fish and loaves of bread before miraculously feeding 5,000 people (Matt 14: 13-21; Mark 6: 35-44; Luke 9: 12-17; John 6:5-13). Consider this alongside Bernard of Clairvaux’s insight into the law of desire, which focuses our human perspective on what we are missing whether it be personal achievement, shiny new purchases, or Instagram worthy experiences with family and friends. When He fed the 5,000, Jesus did not acknowledge lack, instead He practiced gratitude. Jesus repeatedly gives thanks in a way that communicates an unwavering faith and satisfaction rooted in His relationship with the Father. This is the heart of what this complicated medieval monk wished to convey. Contemplating the overabundant love of God, Bernard writes, “although He can give us nothing better than Himself…He keeps Himself to be our reward, He serves Himself as food for hungry souls, He sold Himself as ransom for captive souls.”

As Thanksgiving approaches, I encourage you to consider extending the season by developing a practice of gratitude where your mind is at peace and your soul can rest in the satisfaction only found in God.

The Practice
Still your mind and practice being present in your body by placing your feet on the ground and taking a few slow intentional breaths. Invite the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide your practice. Acknowledge where the law of desire is working to promote a feeling of lack. Next ask the Holy Spirit to enable you to see as Jesus saw, through the law of love. As you name and meditate on the provision, and gifts in your life, give thanks and acknowledge God as the source of every blessing. Finally, spend a few minutes meditating on and giving thanks for the love and mercy at work in your life through your relationship with God.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends! May your soul be held in rest and peace by the power of the Holy Spirit, throughout the season. In Jesus’ name, Amen.