I would like to freely admit at the outset that I do not consider myself necessarily competent to speak rapturously about the subject of gratitude. Having attempted (with fair success) to find something every day to be grateful for (and finding out that most of my gratitude involves the friendliness and consideration and affection of other people rather than material blessings or physical things) , I must admit freely that often I struggle to feel grateful for those things that I have been given in the face of the massive concern I have for those things that I have not been given despite agonizing waits and endless quests . As someone whose happiness and gratitude has often depended on the behavior of other people, it should be little surprise that it should be a difficult matter for me to deal with given that how grateful I feel depends often on those circumstances that are the most out of my control, which is not a particularly enviable place to put oneself.
Having said that, though, I feel it necessary to comment on a fatal confluence of the problem of gratitude within my larger society that has particularly struck me deeply but has not received a great deal of commentary. This year we have seen two remarkable events whose connection to each other and to our society’s larger crisis of gratitude is remarkable, but whose significance has not been well noted. So, therefore, as unqualified as I may be to write or preach about the subject of gratitude given my own struggles with it, I nonetheless feel it necessary to comment on these connections today for the benefit of others, so that we might at least wrestle with its significance. The first strand of this confluence is the extremely rare and fateful connection of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, two festivals with venerable and honorable histories of honoring God and showing gratitude for His blessings, even in difficult times. The second strand is the fact that businesses, after years of coming as close as possible to the line of commerce on Thanksgiving, have begun en masse to cross over that line and turn Thanksgiving into a day of commercialism, crossing over the boundary of sacred space, with a great deal of indifference or even approval to many. Third, these two events have come at a time when our gratitude, not only to God but also to man, is at a dangerously perilous level that threatens the well-being and harmony of our society (and, no doubt, many others as well). This connection is therefore a rather fateful one that deserves serious reflection.
Although it might surprise some people as to the importance of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving to my own writing , both of these festivals, which coincide today, have a notable and praiseworthy history, and I have happily celebrated both of them over the course of my life with friends and family as a necessary reminder of the historical blessings of God to my people. Even if it is a familiar and often told tale, sometimes stale with repetition of telling, it is nevertheless important to note the importance of gratitude to both Thanksgiving and the festival of Hanukkah so that we can understand the religious and moral significance of gratitude to this day as a necessary context to the immense lack of gratitude we find around us here and now, and that serves as a threat to our well-being and our personal dignity.
First, Hanukkah is an annual festival that appears in the Bible, kept by Jesus Christ himself in John 10:22-30. The origins of the festival came in a time of great historical crisis for the Jews during the intertestimental period. Faced with the rise of Hellenism, many Jews had become lax in their worship of God and in their obedience to His laws. Many of the elite, in particular, behaved with casual indifference or even wholehearted acceptance of the nudity and idolatry and corrupt immorality of the Greeks, and justified this sort of syncretistic ideal with an appreciation of the sophistry and general philosophical viewpoint of the Greeks, which is vastly different from the richness of the biblical viewpoint that we are to adopt . When faced with the demand to sacrifice a pig, a priestly (though not Zadokite) family in the small Jewish village of Modein rose up in rebellion against their Seleucid masters and started a lengthy rebellion that after much death and destruction and betrayals and reversals, ended in the establishment of a small and fragile but independent Jewish state which would for 80 years exist perilously in the late Hellenistic world as the successor kingdoms of Alexander entered their death throes and Rome expanded to dominate the entire Mediterranean basin. Given this momentous historical and cultural importance, it out to be clear that the gratitude of the Jews in specific historical circumstances was not only an act of faith and courage, but also a sign of God’s involvement even in the mundane affairs of politics, a fact that has momentous consequences for people of faith in our own times.
The history of Thanksgiving, though not quite as lengthy as that of Hanukkah, is no less venerable and important. At the very beginnings of England’s imperial establishment in North America, a group of religious refugees of a particularly strong religious and commercial bent  sought for freedom from the political upheavals and oppression of a corrupt Europe in the virgin wilderness of North America. Having arrived late in the year, they showed gratitude for the kindness of their new neighbors, the aboriginal people of the area, by engaging in a festival that is redolent of the biblical Feast of Tabernacles (which is not surprisingly also a pilgrim feast ). However ungraciously the Pilgrims and their Puritan cohorts acted towards that population later on when their own desire for more land and better commercial conditions led them into deadly combat with those same neighbors, at least they began in a spirit of gratitude. Likewise, it is also significant that Thanksgiving entered our civil calendar during the time of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln established a national day of prayer and humiliation to remind Americans during the time of the Civil War of their need to show gratitude to God even in times of well-deserved national trials. Not insignificantly, in 1941, on the even of American entry into World War II, Thanksgiving became an official yearly civil holiday for largely the same reasons, a reminder of God’s graciousness even in times of trouble. We see therefore that the history of Thanksgiving and its seminal importance to our times of social crises is closely related to that of Hanukkah for the Jews, and their confluence this year is a significant and very rare matter that deserves reflection.
This confluence of two festivals of gratitude is especially significant in light of the fact that this year marks the time when many businesses have finally crossed over the line from Black Friday into turning Thanksgiving into the start of the all-important Christmas commercial season . Although there has long been a tension between the food coma resting and family atmosphere of Thanksgiving and the savage competitive shopping of the following day . Apparently the economic insecurities of many companies as well as the late Thanksgiving made it seem acceptable for companies to open the shopping season on Thanksgiving and not even leave one day of gratitude apart from the concerns of moneymaking. After all, fewer and fewer boundaries are considered acceptable when making money is at stake, whether in terms of time or in terms of the domains of life, like family . Unsurprisingly, I find this to be troubling.
We cannot necessarily blame companies entirely for this development. To be sure, companies are pushing to cross over more boundaries in the search of money, but at least some of this push is thanks to the desire of people themselves. In addition to this, we only have ourselves to blame for our savage combat in stores in search of desirable prices for desirable items. If we camp out in the sidewalks of a Kmart for hours, or trample over people in a Wal-Mart or Best Buy for some Chinese made technological trinket, it is not the fault of the stores that are selling us the items, but rather our own fault for being rude and boorish and savage. We have to take some responsibility for our own actions, and make sure that we behave in a proper fashion in our lives. If companies are failing to respect boundaries, it is largely because our desires for convenience and our competitiveness with others have eroded many of the boundaries of our own lives and encouraged others to behave in the same way themselves.
This confluence of greed and a lack of boundaries is coming along with a crisis of gratitude. A particularly pointed and timely aspect of our general societal crisis of gratitude is a lack of respect and appreciation for our leadership. Trust in institutions, whether we are talking about religious leaders, corporate leaders, or political leadership, has eroded to critically low levels. Whatever the justice of our criticisms of government, and there are many concerns that would be justified, we have to remember that our leaders come from among ourselves, and if we prefer to hear smooth lies and false promises rather than truths (often unpleasant ones), that fault is our own and not the fault only of those who lie to us and tell us what we want to hear.
A particularly poignant example of this concerns our current health care crisis. For decades various leaders have tried various means, within the boundaries of what was political feasible as well as their own biases and worldviews, have tried to prevent the runaway rise of costs and also provide for some measure of coherence within the immensely complicated health care system of the United States. The Affordable Care Act of 2010, passed during a moment of temporary Democratic rule of the House, Senate, and Presidency, desired to create a government centered health care solution that nonetheless had uninsured people go to obtain health care as individuals, even while companies were forbidden from regulating prices and access to insurance based on the health of the people seeking insurance. Instead, insurance costs were based on age, income, and smoking status . Clearly, the plan was deeply flawed, and worse, there were lies that it would save money and that people would be able to keep the existing policies that they liked, when that was clearly not part of the plan. That said, all of these truths were known or at least could be figured out from the beginning by those willing to investigate, but were widely believed until it became obvious what was going on. And the fault for believing self-serving lies without investigation is not the fault merely of our government, but also of ourselves. And we cannot blame our own failures on our leaders.
Given the fact that Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are occurring at the same time in what is an extremely rare occurrence , the fact that this occurrence has combined with the erosion of customary restrictions on the timing of the start of our nation’s lengthy celebration of commercialism and mercenarial purchasing as well as a general societal crisis of ingratitude, this timing is very illuminating. We cannot help but be influenced by our times and our societies, but we can at least seek to counteract those bad influences that we have to face because of the societal level of selfishness and ingratitude and seek to develop virtuous conduct despite our adverse circumstances. No one said it would be easy, but life is not often easy.
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