The Call to Mourn on Thanksgiving
For the 1970 annual reenactment of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock – a festive tourist attraction complete with costumes, prayers, and parade – the organizers wanted to highlight the relations between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe since it was the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. To do so, the organizers invited the current leader of the Wampanoag, Frank James, to deliver a speech for the occasion. James wrote his speech based on the Pilgrims’ account of their first year in the area which included how they had opened Native graves in search of treasure, forcefully took food from Native tribes, and then captured and sold Native Americans as slaves. Although his speech’s theme was on reconciliation it was rejected for being too inflammatory. Rejected from the official Thanksgiving celebration, James instead delivered his speech on a nearby hill, establishing the first National Day of Mourning. Every year since a group has gathered there for a National Day of Mourning – committing to gather as long as there are injustices in our nation that need to be mourned. At times the gathering has been met with armed police, state troopers, and pepper spray, but since 1998 the gathering has been permitted to assemble as long as it doesn’t interfere with the official Thanksgiving celebration.
Not just in November, but every week, Christians around the world gather for official Thanksgiving celebrations. Eucharist, which means thanksgiving, is a celebration of praise and thankfulness to God situated in the memory of a death. When we gather, we hear the story of what happened on the night Jesus was betrayed and partake in the broken body and shed blood, for we believe that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Our process of giving thanks involves the retelling of a sacrifice – a confession of acts done on our behalf. To do so in remembrance implies that the past, however painful and uncomfortable, cannot be forgotten. We gather not only to give thanks and praise, but to remember the events of the story that we find ourselves in.
Participating in this ritual of thanksgiving and remembrance shapes us. We in the church not only partake symbolically of the body of Christ, we are the body of Christ which believes that sharing the bread and the cup represents the communion we have as a body. We are not individuals who happen to gather once a week, but integral parts of a body that depend on each other in order to function. We remember the sacrifice of Jesus by caring for each other’s needs – living sacrificially for one another as part of that act of remembrance and thanksgiving. Within that communion many of us pray as part of our very act of thanksgiving words of confession and repentance for what we have done and what we have left undone, including our failure to love our neighbors as ourselves. Those aren’t (or shouldn’t be) just perfunctory words; for to enter into thanksgiving involves placing ourselves in community and not only confessing the ways we have failed to remember the sacrifice of Christ as part of that community, but repenting of those ways by seeking reconciliation instead.
Thanking God for all God has done for us without acknowledging the parts of our body that are in pain or even the ways we have caused harm to that very body is to fail to remember Christ’s sacrifice. The first Thanksgiving is not just a tale of blessing (if it is even that at all), it is also a tale of the failure to love our neighbors – a failure that gets perpetuated every year mourning and reconciliation are avoided in the name of a celebration. Participating in Eucharist, in thanksgiving, involves acknowledging that because of Christ our lives are intricately bound up in each others’. We rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn because we are all one body. There should not have to be a separate National Day of Mourning to call us to repentance for the injustices caused by things done and left undone. Pleas for the confession of our failure to love our neighbor should not be silenced for being too inflammatory or met with armed police for getting in the way of official celebration. Thanksgiving for the body of Christ should by its very nature involve mourning as well as celebration and confession as well as praise.
The Thanksgiving table is also the Eucharist table where we can partake only in lived remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice.