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.
Finally, this trilogy of living Psalms ended with Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, which coincided with the fruit harvest. People built booths or sukkot, which means "coverings, shelters," and they slept and ate in them. These temporary structures called to mind the wandering of homeless, escaped Israelite slaves in the desert, where they depended fully on God for their sustenance in an unstable life of struggle and impermanence. Although Sukkot commemorated a fragile time, its emphasis was on rejoicing.
In modern versions of Sukkot, celebrants bind together three special items: palm branches, myrtle, and willow. They wave these in all directions to show that God's goodness exists everywhere and recite a blessing. At the same time, they hold what looks like a lemon in their left hand. The elements are fresh, aromatic reminders of life. The deliverance that began with Passover blooms in Sukkot. Beauty and abundance attend the command to "rejoice." Booths are decorated festively. People, separated from an oppressive past, extend hospitality. Joy is full (yes, even without commercials and football).
Though each member of this trilogy of harvest festivals has its distinctions and emphases, they all share acts of pilgrimage and sacrifice. Additionally, people recite the Hallel (Psalms 113-118), which focuses on God's power, mercy, and deliverance. Psalm 116 is especially evocative for Christians: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone."
As we approach Thanksgiving, an American harvest festival, what can we learn from joyful marching farmers, homeless slaves, and people spared in the passing-over? To begin, we might remember that all aspects of life — suffering and joy, struggle and comfort, ugliness and beauty, and so on — are welcome and dealt with at the table. Considering this might give us more grace for our families and ourselves.
We might also remember that God is neither ascetic nor Bacchanal, which means that we, like the farmers and the booth dwellers, can freely receive beauty and abundance in one hand while we sacrificially release gifts with the other; then we might choose ways to concretely manifest such acceptance and generosity.
Thanksgiving celebrations will soon be upon us. What will yours look like this year? I'm going to remember that black hats are optional. Thanks are not. And ritual is recommended.
L. L. Barkat is the author of Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places (InterVarsity Press, 2008). She blogs at Seedlings in Stone, where you are invited to join a Thanksgiving celebration with a post of your own.
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