It is the day after Thanksgiving, and a few days till Advent. Over the next few weeks, all our learning and living will take place in the context of bustle and anticipation, joy and solemnity, fasting and feasting. This merits some reflection.
Most days we trip along doing more or less the same thing, trying to be more or less virtuous, hoping, by nightfall, to be more or less happy. The church calendar names these days “Ordinary Time,” and they are lovely; only dulled senses and a blunted soul find pattern uncreative and predictability boring.
But we are, in fact, those whose senses are dull and souls blunt. So days of feasting and fasting break into the days of Ordinary Time, upending schedules and wreaking all manner of disarray in a winsomely wild attempt to resharpen us. In defiance of our ordinary preference for efficiency, practicality, and easy clean-up, we wrap things in paper that someone else will tear off, tote the stickiest of trees into the house to set in the best room, and spend days preparing meals that will be consumed (if we’re lucky) in an hour.
And perhaps, amidst the extravagance, we battle exhaustion and wonder Why?
Yesterday, for instance, perhaps you watched in exasperation as the Thanksgiving feast you lovingly prepared was devoured quickly, even carelessly. Back at your post by the kitchen sink, scrubbing the dinner dishes just as you’ve already scrubbed countless cooking dishes, perhaps you wondered whether the pictures snapped hastily before digging in, or the compliments bestowed between mouthfuls, were really worth the fuss. Next year, a simpler meal, maybe? Or a break in tradition for a Thanksgiving dinner eaten out?
Measured by the standards of Ordinary Time, such thoughts are quite legitimate. But times of feasting need a different measure—something a little like what Flannery O’Connor aimed to do in her fiction, making her “vision apparent by shock,” since “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” The question to ask of a feast is not why; it is rather what—what vision does this startling figure portray?
My own first thought on asking this question of Thanksgiving dinner was that the disproportion between preparation and presentation dislodges our priorities to sharpen our dulled values. Our cultural context presses us to prioritize the moment of satisfaction and to scorn the time of waiting. We celebrate Christmas without Advent and wish for instant Thanksgiving dinner. Yet, for myself, one of the greatest guards against this attitude has been the formation I received through my mother’s holiday traditions.
From when we were little girls, my sisters and I loved the day before Thanksgiving almost more than the day itself, because we would spend nearly the whole of it in the kitchen with Mama, at first “helping,” and later truly helping, her to cook the half-dozen beloved dishes, all from scratch, that appeared on the table only once each year. Through my mother’s commitment to the disproportion of a Thanksgiving feast, we learned to know and love the particular togetherness of the kitchen and of shared labor. We also learned to relish our family’s celebration not only in its culmination, but also in its preparation; that is, we learned that joy consists of anticipation as much as experience (and, also, memory). The startling figure communicated to us a vision of love’s laboriousness, labor’s sweetness, and joy’s fullness.
This year, though, another facet of the vision broke open for me; that is, that the depth of our appreciation for any expression of beauty (and truth and goodness) is always disproportionate to the labor pressed into its making. Which work of art, even one that you have studied deeply and been shaped by profoundly, have you contemplated with the attentiveness or time poured into its creation? How long do the lovely wildflowers take to germinate, sprout, grow, and blossom before you deign to give them a second’s appreciation while zipping down the interstate? The light that you only rarely even notice—though without it you notice nothing else—how many years or lifetimes does it travel through galaxies to rest for one brief instant upon your eyes?
I do not think this disproportion originates from our fallenness, but our finitude; we simply have not the capacity for awe proportionate to all the wonders amongst which we live and move and have being. Wonder itself, perhaps, is the consciousness of the disproportion.
Did you yourself, the cook, have the right proportion of awe for the Thanksgiving feast that you spread? You might have lamented the haste with which your green bean casserole and sweet potato soufflé and pumpkin pie and turkey were gobbled down. But did you, yourself, stop to commemorate the uncounted hours and nameless hands which brought these goods to you? Did you reflect upon the patience of green beans ripening on the vine, the slow swelling of sweet potatoes within the ground? From what corners of the earth did the spices, cheeses, coconuts, and other exoticisms travel to reach your table? What life did the grand bird enjoy before appearing, in crisp golden-skinned perfection, at the center of your table?
Here, perhaps, we get to the heart of the vision and the mystery, as the table is the heart of human life. Every table images an altar set with sacrifice, for it is by sacrificial death that we live. Yet for how many minutes in any day do you contemplate the daily deaths of plant and animal which sustain the life of your body, the deaths-to-self of your neighbors and family that sustain the life of your spirit—the death of the immortal, eternal, infinite Son of God to sustain the life of your soul? Each moment of your living, each object of your experience, represents the self-giving of more being than you can comprehend.
This, then, may be the vision behind Thanksgiving’s startling figure; a vision beside which the disproportion between effort and enjoyment in the dinner suddenly seems humble, and a vision that sharpens sense and soul to our awe-full calling of gratitude.
Thanksgiving, like the whole season of feasting and fasting before us, is no stupendous waste of energy; instead, it is a humble testimony and tribute of gratitude for the lavish giftedness of our lives.