Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Thanksgiving Before Pilgrims & Indians

I've always heard that holidays are the hardest on those left behind, their loved ones' absence creating a conspicuous void at any festive gathering.

Although most of my loved ones are still on this side of the great divide, the miles between us will find my family scattered like bright points on a map for Thanksgiving Day. My parents will be out of state with my dad's family; my brother will be "on call" at his military post in D.C., and my in-laws will be away as well, serving at their church's week-long, three-services-a-day Camp Meeting.

By last Saturday, I was so overwhelmed with images of empty chairs around the table that I'd just about decided to skip the holiday altogether.

The children are young. They wouldn't remember whether or not we gorged ourselves on a pop-up-timer turkey, cholesterol-slathered dressing, pumpkin pie, and (my favorite) chilled cranberry sauce that makes a sucking sound as it wobbles Jell-o style from the can. Since every past event happens either "yesterday" or "forever" ago in their young minds, I could just tell them Thanksgiving had already past.

And so, with husband watching what he referred to as "the most or second most important football game of all time," I entertained excited children by letting them help box up the turkey, the swags of autumn leaves, and the cornucopia; wrap up the ceramic pilgrims and pumpkins; shove the plush Indians back into their dark closet hole...all before breaking out the ruby-colored poinsettias, evergreen garland, pink sparkly tree, and white twinkle lights.

Instead of being sad over what would not be, I decided to be thankful for what was to come, to move forward to December when my family would be back together again, if only for a few days.

Even in the midst of tinsel and holly, though, I've still been thinking on Thanksgiving, but not so much the first Thanksgiving in America. No, I've been thinking further back to a "Thanksgiving" of sorts that I only recently learned about--the first one celebrated by those Israelites who had been taken into captivity to live as exiles in Babylon for 70 years.

When the exiles finally returned to Israel, can you guess what was the first feast the people celebrated? No, not Thanksgiving, but something quite similar--the Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles, a harvest celebration that occurs in the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, Tishri, which corresponds to our September/October.

Ezra writes, "Now when the seventh month came, and the sons of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem...They celebrated the Feast of Booths, as it is written" (Ez. 3:1,4).

In Leviticus, the Lord spoke to Moses requirements for this feast: "‘On exactly the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the crops of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD for seven days....Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. You shall thus celebrate it as a feast to the LORD....You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.’" (Lev. 23:39-44).

A feast, a harvest celebration to occur after the people had gathered the crops from the land? A feast to remind them that God had freed them from "exile" in Egypt, had taken them to a promised land He had covenanted to give them?

Harvest. Religious Freedom. Sounds a lot like our Thanksgiving to me.

Years later after both the exiles had rebuilt the temple and Jerusalem's city wall, the prophet Nehemiah emphasizes the celebration of this feast again: "They found written in the law how the LORD had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month....The entire assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. The sons of Israel had indeed not done so from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day. And there was great rejoicing" (Neh. 8:14,17).

Returning home after 70 years of captivity had to make that first Feast of Booths quite special. And then this second mention of the Feast after the city of Jerusalem's walls were restored is described as even more special--a nationwide celebration that hadn't been this "big" since the days of Joshua.

Just as in the days of Moses, God had once again brought the exiles home to the promised land, where they could worship their God in His holy temple, in the manner in which He had prescribed to be worshiped. And there was great rejoicing.

To me, Thanksgiving has always meant Pilgrims and Indians, Plymouth rock, and the Mayflower. But now? I'm looking back a bit further to the Jewish Feast of Booths, a harvest celebration to remind the people of just what God had set them free from, of a time when they lived in tents ("booths") and relied on Him for their literal daily bread.

Even in this season I wanted to skip, I'm finding myself being caught up in the atmosphere of gratitude, thankful for God freeing me from the chains of sin God, for the harvest He keeps sending each season, and for the daily manna He rains down on those of us on our own journey to the promised land.

Image: For parents of young children (intended for ages 7 and up), I recommend reading Barbara Cohen's Molly's Pilgrim, a precious, beautifully illustrated story of a Yiddish girl whose classmates tease her relentlessly and the Thanksgiving project to make a Pilgrim doll that teaches Molly (and your children) what it means to be a modern-day Pilgrim in a world still marked by religious persecution.

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