Essay / Misc.

The Prodigal Holiday

I will be bringing (among other things) dessert number four to our Thanksgiving feast. I may make a pear tart. It’s strategic, making a light and fruity dessert number four. How else should I expect it to be eaten, after the turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and a big fat et cetera, in competition with whatever chocolate and pumpkin and pecan delights are offered?

And this leads me to ask: What does pigging out have to do with giving thanks? My answer: on this occasion, quite a lot.

We have preserved some of the etymological richness of the word “grace” in the old-timey reference to mealtime prayers as “saying grace.” Gratitude and thanks have something to do with pleasure and favor. Experiencing pleasure and expressing gratitude are both forms of grace. A good feast, a communal participation in abundance, both occasions and provides space for much thanksgiving.

Gratitude, I think, is the best apology for consumption. But the sorts of consumption that occasion deep gratitude are not really in the order of our economy: no wages, no market exchanges, no savings, no capital, no loans. Just abundant giving and grateful receiving.

Giving a feast requires something great of a host: the prodigal use of her finite resources. It requires obedience to our Lord’s instruction: Do not store up.

Consuming a feast is the duty of a good guest. The right way to receive a gift is to enjoy it, in the spirit in which it is given.

When the LORD provided manna for the wandering people of Israel, he set some strange rules regarding its consumption. Except in preparation for Sabbath, the people were only to gather enough for the day. Stored manna would rot. They were to sleep, presumably in peace, having consumed all they possessed for nourishment. They were to rise each morning to discover the Lord’s renewed provision.

This daily bread dependence doesn’t afford so many of our best fiscal impulses: saving, stewardship, and frugality. Not that God’s dealing with the wandering Israelites gives sufficient reason to abandon the sort of circumspection that the counsel of Scripture and of best reason would advise regarding the management of resources.

But it also seems good to create space for this Thanksgiving feast to become an exercise in prodigality. What can we use up that we would rather keep on reserve? Most of us will spend our limited resources money and time preparing for this week’s feast. And we will have ample opportunity, in our family and extended community, to use up other resources.

Feasting, too, is an exercise in realizing our finitude. No matter how much we eat on Thursday, hunger will strike again on Friday. All the sating of desire I can accomplish in one day can hardly save me from those of the next. We don’t stay full.

How often we view our relational and personal resources analogously to our time and money. And, indeed, my patience, generosity, and kindness are limited resources. I have developed strategies to save, store up, and reserve personal and relational energy.

But a feast asks so much more. As guests and hosts to one another, we can offer selves as bountiful as we can conjure, and we can sate ourselves to fullness in the offerings of the other: inquiring, hearing, forgiving, helping, affirming, playing, self-divulging.

Thanksgiving can be exhausting. What a good occasion to use up both spending and consuming rather than to store up our resources. And what a good Friday it will be to discover the bounty of God, providing for needs that we could not satisfy long-term and replenishing gifts we thought to have given away.

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