Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Holiday of Consumption

"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them." -John F. Kennedy

Every Thanksgiving I am struck by the suspicion that we have lost our sense of what gratitude, thanksgiving, really means. Our celebration of the holiday is hardly a reflection of the concept from which it was named. It has become, by and large, a holiday of consumption. We gather together (which is, perhaps, the baby in the bath water), we watch football, we eat excessive portions of food... enough to sustain a small village for a week, and then we go shopping in the morning. And this, at least by name, has become the American expression of gratitude.

Does such a celebration reflect thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving, by my understanding, is an expression of gratitude for the realization of a gift. For those of us who have encountered the living God and who have realized the depravity of the human situation apart for the creativity and grace of this God, everything demands the interpretation of gift. In other words, in light of God's sovereign grace, everything we have is a gift--everything from breath and sustenance to the warmth of friendship and companionship. If we are breathing, if we bear the capacity to perceive beauty, if we are moving through time with life and breath, it is only ever because of the generosity and love of God, our maker.

Would the best response to such gifting be to indulge in them and to consume more? Would it be appropriate to say, as in the sarcastic words of one of my students while discussing this very topic, "we got gifts! LET'S GET SOME MORE!" Of course not.

The only conceivably legitimate response to such gifting is the act of emulation. In other words, if we realized how blessed we were, we would not be able to help ourselves from pursuing the blessing of others. In our gratitude, we would not be able but to live by our appreciation. We are blessed so that we might bless others!

Thanksgiving, I'm afraid, is a holiday which has been hijacked by consumerism, as has been the fate of so many other American holidays (not least the American version of Christmas). So we have no choice but to respond creatively. How can we creatively take back Thanksgiving so that it may somehow be a true reflection of genuine gratitude? How can we make a holiday of consumption into a holiday of compassion? How can we live by our words?

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