I met a man at the local farmer’s market who won’t celebrate Thanksgiving this year.
He always strikes up a conversation with me; I guess I’m an easy customer to remember with my five-strong brood of ducklings – one in a wheelchair – in tow. He’s a Vietnam vet whose friend sells eggs and apples out of the back of his pickup. He spent the summer good-naturedly harassing the customers, until his friend caught on and put him to work. On Saturday, I ran up alone to quickly buy a dozen eggs. The vegetable farmers were gone for the year, but cold wind whipped across the parking lot, chafing the few die-hard sellers of meat, bread, milk and eggs who remained. The man saw me coming and greeted me with a small bag of apples. Gratis. “For the boys” he said, and held out the bag. I thanked him, handing him money for a dozen extra large. He counted quarters and asked about our Thanksgiving. “Well, it clearly includes apple pie,” I gestured with the bag he’d given me. “How about yours?”
“I don’t celebrate anymore.” He replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “My wife will head down to be with the kids, but I’ll stay home. Haven’t done Thanksgiving since my parents died. Just doesn’t seem right without them.”
“I’m sorry.” I offered lamely.
“It’s been 16 years. It’s just a day… ”
Perhaps there was more that I could not understand. I have not been to war. I have not loved and lost. I am never even alone between children, a husband, and my God who loves me even in the dark times. There must be pain and emptiness I can’t begin to imagine in his life. I tried to process it. Before me stood a man for whom nostalgia had no beauty. The holiday was anathema; the past oppressed his present. Memories were misery.
If the day is merely a nod to nostalgia and happy memories, than I guess I can’t blame him. But I think it must be more than that…
Roughly seven centuries after the first Passover, King Hezekiah called the nation to keep it again. The country had ebbed and flowed in devotion. It had seen its golden age. It had seen civil war. Dramatic governing choices had affected every level of society. Leaders had come and gone. The temple was in disrepair, abused, scorned, disparaged. “Sanctify yourselves,” he commanded the priests who remained. “Carry out the rubbish from the holy place. Our fathers have done evil, turning their faces away from the dwelling place of the Lord. Therefore the wrath of the Lord fell upon Judah and Jerusalem, and He has given them up to trouble. Now it is in my heart to make a covenant with the Lord. My sons, do not be negligent now, for the Lord has chosen you to stand before Him.” (2 Chronicles 29).
They did it. They kept the feast. They cleaned up. They cleaned house. They invited all the relatives, all the friends and strangers. They killed the Passover lamb. They ate. They sang, they rejoiced, they blessed. They kept the feast “with great gladness.” There had been nothing like this in Jerusalem since the time of David and Solomon. They feasted for seven days. When it was over, they were having such “great gladness” that they extended the celebration another seven days. The whole assembly rejoiced together.
And their voice was heard; their prayer came up to His holy dwelling place, to heaven. (Verse 27).
It has been roughly four centuries since the first Thanksgiving. The country has ebbed and flowed. It has seen its golden age. It has seen civil war. Dramatic governing choices have affected all of society. Leaders have come and gone. Now the church is in disrepair, abused, scorned, disparaged. But the priests are still here. We can still heed the call to consecrate. To clean up. To keep the feast that memorializes our humble roots. To remember. To rejoice.
It wasn’t a quaint nod to nostalgia that made God turn His ear to their celebration. It wasn’t memories of their recent past, which had seen both reform and terrible idolatry within the last few leaders. It wasn’t an excuse to gorge on food, gossip, or even good fellowship.
It was a communal consecration. It was resolve, strengthened by gathering together. It was humble honesty, admitted.
It was joy, infectiously shared.
And it was heard by God.
That’s some party.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to explain the real reason I celebrate Thanksgiving to this man. It’s not easy to communicate in words. But I’ll likely see him again, with my little crew in camouflage strutting along brightly behind. I hope, I pray, that our “great gladness” will affect him. The Lord has chosen us, after all, to “stand before Him.” And sanctified happiness is compelling.
Holy is the holiday sanctified by joy.
Remember our beginnings. Renew our covenant. Keep the feast.