Not so long ago, the day after Thanksgiving was the big shopping day, a mad rush to trigger Christmas consumer consciousness. Then some malls decided to start the spree at 12:01 Friday morning. Now, it seems, the day before Thanksgiving has been turned into the day after. Maybe soon we can skip Thanksgiving entirely.
After all, the spirit of giving thanks is not very good for craving and buying. If you give thanks, you are focused on what is, not what is not, on what you have rather than what you do not have. That is why Thanksgiving may well be the most subversive national holiday. It centers on the present moment, on the ritual of families eating together and especially on the appreciation of life.
Sometimes I think ingratitude was the original sin, the primal fall from grace. Adam and Eve, remember, really had everything. They were already like gods—made in the image and likeness of God. They had everything in their garden, including the tree of life itself. And yet the great deceiver, that snake, seduced them into fretting over what they did not have: the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree of limits. Like gods, they were not God. And that fact ate away at them just as surely as they would eat the apple.
The Incarnation, then, became the great reversal of our Fall, a yes to our humanness, not only in our limits, but even in our fallen, broken state. Mary’s “Let it be according to your word” was the harbinger of her son’s “Into your hands” on the cross. Perhaps this is why Jesus, in his lifetime, seems so grateful for gratitude. Ten lepers are healed; one returns to give thanks. What happened to the other nine? Did they go on to their next crisis, their next craving need? What happened to giving thanks?
If we ever have that question, the answer is this: Don’t let go of Thanksgiving. Instead of lurching into the “30 shopping days left till Christmas,” why not extend thanksgiving all the way through Christmas and even into the new year? Let Advent be not just a longing for God, but a savoring of all the ways God already enters into our lives.
This requires a strategy. One that I have come upon and have found to actually work is this: enter the days. Savor them. Appreciate them. Then God can enter our days with us. All we need is a practical discipline. Here it is.
When Thanksgiving has already passed and December has begun, we can prolong the great day of banquets. Instead of counting shopping days before Christmas or anticipating the days after it, when unwanted trinkets can still be returned, we should number our own days, take hold of them and anoint them.
A simple way to do this is to use an 8-inch by 11-inch lined piece of paper. Draw a vertical line down the middle. Each horizontal line counts for a day, and each of the two columns will hold objects of gratitude. Make one column a list of persons, now living or in history, for whom you are grateful—one person or group of persons per line. Make the other column a list of things, places and events for which you give thanks. Each day write one entry in each column. By the end of one month you will have a litany of gifts, a catalogue of the ways God has come into your life. Then, with the mother of Jesus, you can ponder these things in your heart. This is an exercise in appreciation, being present to what is. In this anointing of the present, we will find ourselves entering God’s presence to our lives.
We will also enter our humanity most deeply. And at the heart of our gratitude, we will find a communion even with those men and women who, not knowing God, have embraced our common frailty with love and thanks.
I am reminded of a short interview with Oliver Sacks published a few years ago, in which he mused on the paradox that he was filled with gratitude even though he did not know whom to thank. Later, in a journal of his own convalescence, A Leg to Stand On, he would write: “Who cared if there was really any Being to pray to? What mattered was the sense of giving thanks and praise, the feeling of a humble and grateful heart.”
Well, I think it makes all the difference that there is Someone to thank. I suspect that Sacks, unable to repress his quiet prayers to a You, might wonder as much. Thanksgiving is not just a day. It is a way to God, whether we know it or not.