Thanksgiving Rituals

Think for a second about the rituals of Thanksgiving.  Most of them are food: Turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie with some region and family variation. The further south you go the more pecan pie and mac-n-cheese show up.  In the Midwest the “green stuff” – you know the pistachio pudding and dream whip salad – and French’s Onion green beans are staples. But there are more.  Families still gather, many over great distances.  The annual report of the misery of being stuck in the airport on the “largest travel day of the year” is a ritual. The President pardoning the Turkeys which unfortunately seems to have erased the much deeper ritual of a written Thanksgiving proclamation which has roots in George Washington and before.  And we shouldn’t forget the football games.  And if you skipped any of these things, especially if someone thought you skipped them intentionally, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving.  You can try and add stuff.  Maybe over time new things replace old, but probably not.

That is the American Thanksgiving liturgy.  And this is probably my most controversial claim, the rituals come first. It is through the liturgies that we learn the meanings and become part of something larger than ourselves. How do you know that you are at “the big game?” The really big game gets a Stealth Bomber flyover, although the Blue Angles also count. Having the Goodyear Blimp present is the entry stakes on a big game.  But the invocation of “the game” always starts with the presentation of the colors – the flags and the teams – and the playing of the national anthem.   That is the liturgy of the game and the creation of the congregation of the game.  Mess with the liturgies or rituals and people know that you are messing with the real meanings.  They might not be able to express in words what those meanings are, but they know them from repeated invocation.

We are all creatures of habit.  The real question is not if we are going to have habits – rituals, liturgies.  The question is if we are going to develop good ones, or poor ones.  As Ben Franklin/Poor Richard would say, “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”  Few do it, but doing your homework immediately at the end of the school day is a liturgy of success. Not to mention that you get to spend your evening having fun without worry.  This is all in the realm of what the Bible would call wisdom literature.  Does it work this way for everyone? Absolutely not. But this is the thing about wisdom literature as Joshua Gibbs wittily put it, “Ways a man can live by, if he is not so foolish as to think himself special.”

This power and necessity of ritual, of liturgy, is something that the church knew for millennia but seems to have forgotten in some mad push for originality.  But even originality turns into ritual.  The demand for “prayers from the heart” turns into “Lord Jesus, we just wanna ask…”.  The third time through a chorus comes with the demand to “raise those hands in worship.”  Even supposedly non-liturgical traditions have a liturgy.  The question really is what does it teach, what meaning does it encapsulate.  This insight is old enough to have a latin phrase, “lex orandi, lex credendi” – the law of worship is the law of belief. How you worship says what you believe better than what you would say.  Is the man who does not fall asleep watching football on thanksgiving really giving thanks?

The Christian Liturgy I think tells us two key things.  The God who has made himself known is The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit. This God makes His grace present for His people here. He has promised to be here in Word and Sacrament which are the means of that grace.  We don’t show up to give God anything.  We show up to receive his grace.  Wherever two or three are gathered in His name. For which Thanksgiving is a proper liturgical response.

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