Marching Farmers, Homeless Slaves
Food. Football. Paper figures with big black hats and oversized belt buckles. This is the basic picture of Thanksgiving that my family passed on to me. There's nothing wrong with it; the first Thanksgiving included supper. Maybe the guests played a rousing game of toss-the-corncob. Surely someone wore a big black hat.
But if you are like me, that vision of the holiday seems devoid of deeper meaning. For a holiday that requires so much preparation, maybe you'd like something more at the end of the day — more than a sink full of dirty dishes, the commotion of football and commercials, or the hat that Uncle Bob unwittingly left behind.
If you want something more, you may just find it in our faith's Jewish roots. Marching farmers, homeless slaves, flatbread eaten in haste, beautiful fruits in baskets: these are just a few elements in a trilogy of biblical harvest festivals that function as a book of living Psalms. In wonderful Psalm-like fashion, everything is brought to the table through these festivals: suffering, triumph, sorrow, joy, struggle, comfort, ugliness, beauty, emptiness, plenty, separation, community, death, and life.
The trilogy begins with Passover, which is not a festival we ordinarily associate with harvest. But Passover coincides with the barley harvest. If you remember the story, Passover commemorates the night God struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, except in the households that had painted blood on the doorposts as a sign that they should be "passed over." The end of the story is life for those who listened, but overall the festival is fairly dark in its celebratory elements: flatbread, a slaughtered lamb, and additional items like bitter herbs and parsley dipped in salt water.
Seven weeks later in the Jewish calendar, the tone changes considerably, with the coming of the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot, which Christians will recognize as coinciding with Pentecost. The wheat harvest had begun. Flatbread gave over to fat loaves, waved before the Lord. Farmers who had tied ribbons on branches budding with first fruits now harvested these fruits and began a march toward Jerusalem. They sang, danced, trailed behind flute players, and carried their baskets of beautiful fruits towards the temple.
Upon arrival at the temple, this rowdy crowd was greeted with priestly song — the Levites welcoming pilgrims and accepting the sacrifice of first fruits. With joy, the farmers presented their gifts, reciting these lines from Deuteronomy 26:
My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me.
The deliverance that began with Passover was more fully experienced in Shavuot, as the fruits of freedom were recognized and shared. This was no Bacchanal celebration where people simply got drunk on new wine (remember the accusation against the apostles at Pentecost?) and stuffed themselves without regard for the Source of their gifts. Rather, the farmers received in one hand while releasing with the other — a full-circle picture of gratitude and thanks.