Thanksgiving and American Mythology


A re-post of mine from Thanksgiving 2008:

Of all the American holidays, the only one I take part in is Thanksgiving. Isn’t it food that makes the holiday? If not, I’m sure it has a lot to do with it. As Orthodox Christians, we certainly know what Christmas and Pascha each commemorate but what would those feasts be, at least in the local family tradition, without the roasted pig or BBQ lamb respectively, or, would they be a festive if we simply had peanut butter and jelly after church? Therefore, being  on the Old Calendar, the 4th of July, for example, is always during the Apostles’ Fast. We go and watch fireworks, so I suppose we ‘celebrate’ it in some way, but the fact there is no cookout, no real culinary aspect to the festivities, leaves it somewhat unmemorable.

Moreover, the very idea of ‘thanksgiving’ is easy to accept and celebrate. It is, after all, a Christian concept – to thank God for all that He has given us. My commemoration (if you can even call it that) of Thanksgiving is based solely on this one aspect and I do indeed look forward to it: the meal, the family coming together, being thankful, etc.

Was there a ‘first’ Thanksgiving or not I’m not too sure, nor am I qualified enough to negate it completely. There probably was something that took place in the early autumn of 1621. Then again, there are those that argue that the first Thanksgiving took place in 1598….in Texas. Whatever the case, Thanksgiving for me has always been something that belongs to the mythology of America, together with George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. They are childlike myths told with an essential truth (e.g. do not tell a lie, thank God for all that blessings He has given you).  We have spiritualized, if you will, the holiday and made it into something which is certainly more worthy of celebrating. To bring history into it I think would ruin the mood. After all, not all Americans, the Native Americans in particular, have the same understanding of Thanksgiving. For if Thanksgiving is about Puritans then it is also has something to do with Indians as well. Howard Zinn in his ‘People’s History of the United States’ writes about Columbus’ discovery of America:

“To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves-unwittingly-to justify what was done.

My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism….)-that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth.”

I doubt, therefore, that I am actually celebrating Thanksgiving by merely eating turkey with family. It would be like saying someone can celebrate Christmas just by going home for the holidays. But what I do think (and here I might be completely wrong) is that I join most Americans in celebration. In other words, I think Thanksgiving has been accepted as an American myth while actual historical events have been glanced over.

Whatever the case may be I look forward to turkey. I am thankful for many things but reminded more so of  J.F.K’s thanksgiving words: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

When We Were Safe

“Everything we received as an occasion for life we turned into an occasion for sin; everything we bent into an occasion for depravity will be turned for us into an occasion for punishment. We have turned the calm of human peace  into an occasion for empty safety; we have preferred traveling over the earth to dwelling in our own land; we have reduced our bodily health to an occasion of vice; we have twisted fertility and abundance away from physical necessities to wrongful pleasure; we have forced the serene pleasures of the weather to serve our love of earthly gratification. The just result is that everything that served our vices when we wrongfully compelled it to do so is at the same time a source of affliction for us, so that we are forced later to experience from the world as many torments as the joys we previously possessed when we were safe”

St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome
Homily from the Gospel, “When you hear of wars and uprisings….”

Don’t Speak

altarIf you don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t speak.

A parishioner told me that recently. I’m in a new parish, still meeting new people. Recently I was at a Slava; which they observed very quietly. It was mid afternoon, warm and sunny outside, just the husband and wife inside. I finished with the cutting of the Slava Kolach and the host asked if I have time for a drink. I said yes. His wife then asked me to eat with them. I said yes again. Making small talk I asked if they had children. They have a son. They had another son who was killed in a car accident, the husband said. He had a rough, hard working face. His voice was deep and strong. He said he doesn’t talk about what happened to his son. I didn’t say anything. But he continued, It happened on Mother’s Day…..And he continued. In the end he told me he hasn’t spoken about it this with anyone before. I didn’t know what to do say. He said, God forbid that it happen to any family. Finally I told him  that one who hasn’t experienced it doesn’t know what words to use. He agreed, nodded and said, If you don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t speak.

Sometimes it’s not the right words we’re waiting to hear but someone who will listen to us at the right time.

Lying at the Door…

31118_000_012_09H/T: Daily Reflections with Patrick Henry Reardon (here)

“Flee from sin as from the face of a serpent, for
if you come too near to it, it will bite you.” (Sirach 21:2)

Genesis 4: This chapter does not tell why God favored Abel’s sacrifice, while rejecting that of Cain. For the answer to this question we must go to Hebrews 11:4: “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts.” We also observe that this is the first of many biblical instances where God chooses the younger son over the elder (Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph and David over their older brothers, and so forth).

In verse 7 the Lord describes evil as “lying at the door” in wait for Cain. Temptation is portrayed as lurking for a man, stalking him, and Cain is exhorted to vigilance, lest he be taken by it. The Hebrew participle for “lying” here, robesh, may be better translated as “crouching.” It is related to the name of a god in Assyro-Babylonian literature known as “Rabishu,” who is described as crouching along the road, endeavoring to waylay the traveler. Cain is warned not to fool with it; it is dangerous. Cain’s mother, after all, had made the big mistake of dialoguing with the snake. Satan, however, invariably wins over those who discuss things with him. Or, as we read in Sirach 21:2, “Flee from sin as from the face of a serpent, for if you come too near to it, it will bite you.”

Cain pays no heed, nonetheless, and goes on to kill his brother (verses 8-10). The first sin leads to the second. The original alienation in Chapter 3 becomes the murder in Chapter 4. Jealousy and violence are the proper products of that first act of infidelity. Cain, the first human being begotten of human parents, is also the first murderer. This murder was not
committed in a fit of passion. Cain showed, by his response to God in verse 9, that he had closed off his heart to God. His disrespect for God was the foundation on which his murder was based. He could not have killed unless he had isolated himself from God. Moreover, by this murder Cain alienated himself from the very ground on which he walked (verses 11-12). He had begun as a farmer, but now he is alienated from the soil. He has assumed, by his sin, the impossible task of being a wandering farmer. The foundational reason for Cain’s alienation from the earth and his fellow men is his
alienation from God (verse 16).

At this point a new element enters the scene, vengeance. Cain is afraid of the retaliation that may be visited on his head because of his murder of Abel (verse 14). Violence begets violence. God’s reply to Cain in verse 15 is reassuring to Cain himself, but it further extends the domain of violence. If Cain is killed, the vengeance will be seven-fold! Then comes the building of the first city (verse 17), and it is manifestly ironical that this first great effort at this exercise of social cooperation was inaugurated by a murderer! What is said of clothing seems also true of what we may call “urban life.” God did not, at the beginning, place man in a city but in a garden. The city was fallen man’s idea. The first city was founded by the first murderer. Indeed, the first city was founded by the first fratricide, a fact that becomes the most ironical of archetypes. The irony was certainly not lost on St. Augustine, who commented  at some length on the manifest travesty that such a great enterprise of brotherly cooperation should be started by a man that killed his brother. In
his lengthy The City of God, the saintly bishop of Hippo went on to compare Cain’s founding of the city of Enoch to the founding of the city of Rome by Romulus, who had killed Remus, his own brother. Man’s efforts, that is to say, are constructed with the elements of their own deterioration. Merely human efforts only disguise man’s plight for a while. The heart of all evil is alienation from God, so any society founded on that alienation has already drunk poison. It will surely die. It is abundantly curious that Cain’s descendents take up, among other things, the crafting of musical instruments. This is another example of a cultural form conceived in evil, but which God takes special care to redeem.

What we said about clothing and urban life also applies to musical instruments. Originally crafted by a descendent of Cain, they do not look promising at first. Moreover, there has often been something a bit problematic about such music, morally considered. When King Nebuchadnezzar employed “the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in
symphony with all kinds of music” for his idolatrous purposes, it was not the last instance when instrumental music served to deflect men from the worship of the true God. Yet, in fact, God rather early designated musical instruments as appropriate to His own worship in the tabernacle and the temple. And, once again, in the final book of the Bible we find heaven to be a place resonating with the sounds of trumpet and harp. Moreover, as an added irony, instrumental music is eventually limited so exclusively to the saints in heaven that the damned in hell are forever deprived of such music! The sinful descendents of Cain, the very inventors of harp and flute, will never hear them again, inasmuch as the “sound of harpists, musicians, flutists, and trumpeters shall not be heard in you anymore” (Revelation 18:22). These things are now reserved for the blessed.

Do Not Avoid Communion

H/T: (here)

“WE MUST NOT AVOID COMMUNION because we deem ourselves to be sinful. On the contrary, we must approach it more often for the healing of the soul and the purification of the spirit, to show our humility and faith, by considering ourselves unworthy and in need … that we desire even more the medicine for our wounds. Otherwise it is impossible to receive communion once a year, as certain people do … considering the sanctification of heavenly Mysteries as available only to saints. It is better to think that by giving us grace, the sacrament makes us pure and holy. Such people who receive less often manifest more pride than humility … for when they receive, they think of themselves as worthy. It is much better if, in humility of heart, knowing that we are never worthy of the Holy Mysteries we would receive them every Sunday for the healing of our diseases, rather than, blinded by pride, think that after one year, receiving once or twice yearly, we become worthy of receiving them.”

Holy Father John Cassia”, +c 435 AD