Thanksgiving is – or at least it used to be – the ultimate American holiday. Maybe less so now that it has more and more become just a prelude to "Black Friday," which itself increasingly seems to begin sometime on Thanksgiving Day itself. Of course, if we think of America as the world capital of out-of-control predatory capitalism, then I suppose "Black Friday" should be thought of as the ultimate American holiday. But some of us certainly are old enough to remember when holidays were really holidays, and we can remember Thanksgiving as it was, when it really was the ultimate American holiday, and its story was one with the story of our national origin.
At least since the Civil War, the New England narrative, the story of the pilgrims, has served as the symbolic centerpiece of our national imagination. So it was no surprise when the PBS series The American Experience ran a 2-hour show on the Pilgrims earlier this week. It was an excellent program, and I learned a good deal from it, not particularly about the Pilgrims' religious and political beliefs - that story is already very well and widely known - but about the Pilgrims' relationship with the world around them before they came to America and with the Native world and peoples they encountered after they arrived in America.
Everyone knows how some of the Natives eventually befriended the Pilgrims. (Actually what they did was make a mutually beneficial alliance with them against other Indian tribes.) This was possible in part because they already spoke some English as a result of earlier encounters with Europeans. But I at least did not know how extensive had been the devastation brought about by a plague that had almost wiped out some of the tribes that had previously lived in the area where the Pilgrims would soon settle. All this had happened in the few years just before the Pilgrims' arrival in 1620, so that what they found was not some pristine wilderness, some re-imagined Garden of Eden, but a place of death and desolation. So what we now look back upon as the first "Thanksgiving," was really, primarily, a celebration of sheer survival and of relief from the shared, mutual losses experienced by both peoples - Native and English.
The Pilgrims had abandoned Europe early in the apocalyptic conflict of that continent's Thirty Years' War, which began in 1618, - only to find the fruit of another apocalypse here in America. Out of all this tragedy, a new society would be built. If it wasn't quite the biblical "City on a Hill" that it aspired to be and that the Puritan settlers some 10 years later would explicitly challenge it to be, the Pilgrims at least aspired - and they attempted the next best thing with a social contract (the famous “Mayflower Compact" we all learned about in grade school) creating for a fallen world a government based on the consent of the governed.
We celebrate Thanksgiving this year - as so often in our history since Abraham Lincoln nationalized the holiday in 1863 - in a time of turmoil and war, when once again the world seems poised on the abyss of apocalyptic crisis. As Lincoln wisely sensed, there is a lesson for us in the present from the faith, which the Pilgrims kept even in a time of crisis and in a place of devastation, and from the hope, that they lived by even in spite of their suffering and grief.
The Pilgrims probably would never have read the Book of Sirach at their Thanksgiving feast, but I think the reading [Sirach 50:22-24] we heard earlier would have spoken to their experience, as I hope it still speaks to ours:
And now, bless the God of all, who has done wondrous things on earth;
Who fosters people’s growth from their mother’s womb
and fashions them according to his will!
May he grant you joy of heart and may peace abide among you;
May his goodness toward us endure in Israel to deliver us in our days.
Homily for Thanksgiving Day, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 26, 2015. (Photo: Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth)