From the perspective of our church, Thanksgiving Day is in something of an odd situation. The Prayer Book calls it a major feast, yet its origins are civic as well as churchly. It is widely observed by the people of this land, but the church in other countries generally does not keep Thanksgiving Day, at least not at this time in November.
And the popular observance of Thanksgiving Day among the inhabitants of our nation is â in our time at least â concerned less with attending worship than it is with travel by car or plane to get where we must be, a turkey feast in the home, a gathering of family and friends, football on the field and on the TV screen, and for many of us, a satisfying nap.
The placement of Thanksgiving Day here on November's fourth Thursday does not reflect ancient church tradition, but is the relatively recent work of a former vestry member of St. Thomas Parish in Washington, D.C., named Franklin Roosevelt who became President of the United States and established the new date in 1939.
So Thanksgiving Day is in a bit of an odd situation. We encounter it as a hybrid of sorts, involving elements of society and church.
To complicate the matter further, it has widely recognized seventeenth-century origins in the celebrations of various groups, including Anglicans, here on the North American continent. It is related as well to harvest festivals observed in Europe, as well as those kept by peoples of many ethnicities and religions across the face of the earth.
And certainly our Thanksgiving Day can claim among its ancestors the three pilgrimage festivals of the Old Testament known as Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. These Biblical feasts, along with the American Thanksgiving, have agricultural significance, yet also feature a layer of historical recollection that honors the liberating and empowering purpose that God fulfills in history.
If all that were not enough, I would like to point out one further feature in this odd and complex mosaic. I want to suggest to you that Thanksgiving Day can lay claim to representing the Original Feast. The Original Feast for Jews and for Christians. The Original Feast for the people of this and every nation. A feast we want to keep, yet never can keep.
The first man and the first woman open their eyes in the first garden, and what do they see? A world of absolute wonder and delight. Even in their inexperienced, untutored state, what can they do but rejoice and give thanks for the beauty and the bounty that surrounds them? The first couple keep their own Thanksgiving Day.
We cannot join them at that Original Feast. The world we live in is shattered. Yet we do not forget that feast; it haunts us. The unforgettable Original Feast animates diverse features of history and culture and practice that drive us to the dinner table here on this strange yet splendid occasion we call Thanksgiving Day.
Memories felt by the human race, by diverse ethnicities and religions and nations, family memories as well, scraps of recollection perhaps from childhood â all these feel significant to us because of the Original Feast.
We want to be there on opening day in that world of absolute wonder and delight. Nostalgia for beauty and bounty of a sort we have never experienced. Nostalgia for a meal straight from the untouched earth. This movement of the heart determines how we set the table, roast the turkey, tolerate the relatives.
Maybe this year we will get it right. Get it right at last. Turn off the television. Avoid sleeping on the sofa. We will find ourselves instead in that place we have never been, but have always remembered. We will find ourselves content and happy back there at the Original Feast. We hope for that to happen.
Maybe this year we won't simply look back to the Original Feast. We will find ourselves there.
We tell ourselves that this can happen, that the nostalgia can become real. Then Jesus butts in. He makes a habit of doing so.
He brings up something different. Not the Original Feast, framed by human nostalgia, what we see when we look backward.
He announces something different: the New Feast. It comes at us from the future. He calls it bread from heaven. Bread that endures, never gives out, never turns stale, food for a new and different life.
This bread does not belong to the past. It arrives here from the future, always fresh. It makes the present moment â which is all we have in time â something new, a moment beyond the reach of death.
The Original Feast drops dead. Memory embalms it, enshrines it, but it lives now with an ersatz life, like old photos when the color fades.
The New Feast, however, is indestructible. It has been through death, never to return. This banquet celebrates a triumph that cannot be taken away. This is the meal that, in the end, is the only one that satisfies.
Jesus announces this New Feast. Were that not enough, he identifies it with himself. I am the Bread of life, he calls out. I'm here from heaven, straight from the Father's throne, not to take, but to give.
Jesus does not rest content with hosting the event, preparing the food, serving the meal. It's Jesus we eat, and Jesus who sustains us, better than turkey and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.
Our capacity for God, our hunger for the Holy, this is sweetly satisfied by the infinitude of mercy that we know as Jesus. Divine life without limit, human life at its fulfillment, somehow what surpasses our imagining is there in him and available to us.
Nostalgia surrenders to newness. The former plenitude is met and matched and surpassed by what appears to us now. For listen to this secret: the Creator continues to make and remake the world. The Holy One does this by speaking, by dying, by rising, by breathing, so that we, the result of his speaking, can die and rise and be animated with a life that has no end. Thus we find our place at a feast that depends not upon nostalgia, but upon a newness flowing from the heart of the eternal God.
How does this newness invade our world? Most eminently through the cross and resurrection. It requires nothing less than death, human death that is also divine death, an execution announcing death itself has died. Then newness invades and pervades this world, taking up its home above all in hearts that are broken and places of grief there to vanquish death yet again.
Where does this newness manifest without fail? Here at the Holy Eucharist, sacrament and sign of the New Feast. We gather here to be refreshed from the eternal fountain which is Christ, to participate yet again in that paradigm that makes life not a short tragedy, but an eternal adventure.
How then shall we keep this Thanksgiving Day? How shall we live the days that will follow? Not according to the Original Feast, glorious once, but now dead and gone. We must live instead as celebrants with Christ of this New Feast, the one that never ends.
We do so as we engage in the practice of wonder. This is what makes us wise, for in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge."
Today and every day we can celebrate the New Feast through the practice of wonder. We can open our eyes afresh to this world beautiful in its foundation and more beautiful in its redemption, which awaits a glorious consummation that will be more beautiful still.
To the One who places us here in this world of wonder, and through the cross and resurrection spreads before us the New Feast, let us give high praise and hearty thanks now and to the ages of ages!