Expressing a desire felt by all human beings to be in close connection with others we hold in affection, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christian community gathered in Rome, “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Romans 1:11-12
Such words resonate with all of us because we understand that there is a pulse that surges through any association of people, whether the grouping be a family, a community, a nation, a tribe, or a whole people. That pulse is sustained by the sense of attachment and caring we hold for one another, by the protective mantel of mutual oversight we extend to one another, by the strength we derive from and in turn offer back to the whole, and finally by the sense of identity and purposeful direction that that the body offers to each individual member.
Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that offers us the collective opportunity to manifest our connections with each another in abundant, enriching, and fulfilling ways. Identity, affection, commitment, all drive the great longing we feel to be together at this time of the year. Thanksgiving serves as a wellspring from which we draw affirmation for the deep loves and attachments of our lives. In coming together, we find sustenance for all those weeks and months when we are apart.
In my youth, I understood Christmas, following Thanksgiving by just a month, as a religious holiday, but I understood Thanksgiving to be a sacred holiday.
Like a religious holiday, there are rituals associated with the day, no matter how secular the setting. The huge, golden hued, turkey is of course, emblematic of the event, as a flag is of a country, or a Star of David, a crescent moon and star, or a cross is for Judaism, Islam, or Christianity respectively.
For most of us, there are mounds of other dishes as well, including possibly grandma’s favorite recipe for apple pie or biscuits or the like, or regional variations, that form part of the visual symbols of the day.
Again, in my youth, Thanksgiving was the Great Feast Day when the extended family would come together, whereas Christmases tended to be spent in smaller collectives. I recall folding tables added to extend the kitchen or dining room one, and a card table set up for the children. There were two or three transition years from child to young adult that come to mind when I was uncertain of my status, but hoped I’d be assigned a seat at the adult table rather than remained consigned a place with “the kids.” My mother and her sisters, my aunts, seemed to remember everyone’s favorite foods, or the way seasonal dishes were to be prepared from year to year, especially desserts. I yet can see my mother standing over a skillet stirring brown sugar into melted butter as she began the creation process for a homemade butterscotch pie, one treat that I especially liked.
I recall my Uncle Wilson, who it seemed always perceived himself as Deacon Wilson, offering long, tediously long, table blessings before the meal. It seemed sometimes that he went on so long that the turkey cooled and the cold dishes warmed. One year, Aunt Peggy, his sister, cut him off midsentence, saying, “That’s enough. Wilson. Amen.”
This year, 2020, the year of the pandemic, family gatherings will be reduced in size, and some will not take place at all. The longings that well up inside us to be together will go unsatisfied, at least in a person to person, chair by chair around a table, arrangement. Some of us will “gather” alone. Some years, sadly, that is true for many people even without a pandemic upon us, and ever we are to heed the call to help and abide those in less fortunate circumstances than we are.
Still, even as we defer and deflect this year, and think about our diminished states, I encourage all to hold true.
PBS has been running a program entitled “The Pilgrims” on its “American Experience” series. The portraiture and detailing in this documentary are riveting and sobering. We all can recite the basic outlines of the Pilgrims’ experiences, but to understand in graphic narrative the ordeals of 102 passengers plus crew, confined for over two months to a ship half again as large as the Great Hall of Pakachoag Church, without sanitation or privacy, without access to cleansing, with dank food, and with disease about, rocking on the swells of the frigid North Atlantic Ocean, casts the struggle of that band of people in stark outline.
I wonder about the longings those on the Mayflower experienced, suspended between past and future. They must have yearned to communicate with loved ones they left behind as they must have speculated about whether they would ever beget a future generation. Still, they persevered and survived, wounded yes, but ultimately not beaten.
So as we gather wherever and with whomever we all will this year, I would bring to mind the travails of the others, the many, many others, Pilgrims, evangelists, reformers, martyrs, pioneers, adventurers, prophets, and invoke their lives and experiences to serve as a banner to remind us that it is within the human nature to persevere and to prevail. I would have us remember that it is within the human spirit to carry on even when unsatisfied longings ache deep within us.
Every Thanksgiving of my life, however adult the group I have been with, in my mind there has always been a children’s table in the room. Whoever offers the blessing or toast, or even if none is given, I hear Uncle Wilson’s utterances with Aunt Peggy interrupting him. No matter the abundance of desserts on the table, I see my mother setting a butterscotch pie mounded with whipped cream before us.
The blessings of families and human attachments are profound and enduring. It may be this year, that even though many we would have join us, or we join them, at table are not present, the strength of the love and caring and affection that binds us to one another, will still be present to sustain our spirits because what we bequeath one another from our hearts endures, lasting even when we are not bodily present to one another.