Sunday, November 21, 2010

Contemplating Thanksgiving Hymns

Our culture has a particular talent for taking a festival deeply invested with sacred meaning and adding layers of sentimentality, silliness and commercialism until the root meaning is all but lost. Thanksgiving has fared better than some holidays, but the added layers include gastronomic overindulgence, an orgy of football, and the firing of the opening gun for Christmas shopping season (which many retailers are now beginning on Thanksgiving Day itself).

But under all this added baggage is the notion that we should pause from all of our busyness to give thanks, and that our relationship with the Creator must begin in gratitude. These are among the few things about which none of the major world religions disagree, making Thanksgiving a religious (“spiritual,” if you prefer) festival that cannot be claimed by a single faith. Across the land, interfaith Thanksgiving observances will be celebrated. Which is a very good thing in an era marked more by conflicts born of religious differences than by affirmation of the things we hold in common.

That great chestnut of a Thanksgiving hymn, “We Gather Together,” was written in 1626 by an unknown Dutchman to celebrate the Netherland’s liberation from Spanish rule. While it is certainly a hymn of praise, it makes no specific mention of gratitude, which has always struck me as a bit odd. “Now Thank We All Our God,” which fairly bursts with gratitude, was written in 1636 by Martin Rinkart, who was then serving as a pastor in the walled city of Eilenburg, Saxony, at the height of the Thirty Years’ War. Eilenberg sometimes served as a place of refuge, but at times it was also beset by famine and pestilence – in a single year, Rinkart buried more than four thousand people. And yet he dared to express gratitude to the Almighty! We, who have so much for which to be grateful, should be humbled, or perhaps ashamed.

As we gather about Thanksgiving tables this week, persons of many different faiths will express grateful thoughts before diving into the feast. In some settings the words will be brief and perfunctory, in others, heartfelt. People will give thanks for good health, for family and friends, for the many blessings we take for granted. Like the unknown Dutch composer, some will give thanks for freedom. And a very few, like Martin Rinkart, will dare to express profound gratitude even in the midst of horrible suffering. We are here; we have this day. And that alone should make us grateful.

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