An Englishman Meditates on Thanksgiving and Psalm 114

25 11 2010

We had a banquet at Thomas More College in New Hampshire before people dispersed for Thanksgiving.  Before the dinner we chose to chant the first 8 verses of Psalm 114 – ‘When Isreal came out of Egypt’ in order to help us meditate on the meaning of this very American holiday.

When the people of Israel, the subject of the psalm, left Egypt they had two goals. The first was to worship and serve God; and the second was to occupy the Promised Land. On their journey they stopped at Sinai. Here they received their instructions for worship and for a rule of life, before moving on to their final destination. That pause in their journey is significant.

‘Sinai, in the period of rest after wandering through the wilderness, is what gives meaning to the taking of the land. Sinai is not a halfway house, a kind of refreshment on the road to what really matters. No, Sinai gives Israel, so to speak, its interior land without which the exterior one would be a cheerless prospect. Israel is constituted as a people through the covenant and the divine law it contains.’(Pope Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p19)

There are obvious parallels between this and the popular story of Pilgrim Fathers for which Thanksgiving has become a focus.  They, like the Isrealites, had worship in mind. They were seeking to institute a sort of religiously based community; and the land they settled in is the land of plenty we now live in. But we would do well to remember also, that it is always a ‘cheerless prospect’ without its Sinai – the interior life that is available to us in its fullest expression through the Church.

But there is something greater that both point to. All of us in this life are constant pilgrims on that journey in its highest form, the pilgrimage to heaven – that quotation was taken from Pope Benedict XVI’s book on the liturgy. He describes the pilgrimage not seen as as a straight path. Rather, he talks of a constant liturgical dynamic of exitus and reditus – leaving to return home, but each time it is a fresh new home, when we step into the supernatural made present by the Eucharist at the centre of the liturgy. Rather than an enclosed circular motion of repeated worship, it is a helix, in which each cycle takes us further upward. (I explore this idea further in another article, The Path to Heaven is a triple Helix.) Quoting Pope Benedict again, ‘in the Christian view of the world, the many small circles of the lives of individuals are inscribed within one great circle of history as it moves from exitus to reditus’. This is why the liturgy, the formal worship of the Church is described as both ‘source and summit’ of human existence. It is both our supernatural launch pad, a source of grace, and landing field, the heavenly activity is liturgical – the perfect, joyful exchange of love in perpetuity .

It is interesting that the Pilgrim Fathers’ journey began in Plymouth and ended in a new Plymouth – Plymouth Rock; and similarly ironic that the one thing that would truly have grounded it in an unmoveable rock was supernatural. The Catholic Church that they did not accept. We, because we are aware of this, are in that privileged position of being pilgrims who have that sure and certain guide to our final destination, one that has its foundations in rock, not Plymouth Rock, but the rock of Peter. Then our home, wherever it may be, can be (referring to the psalm) both Judah and Israel, sanctuary and dominion.

That is true cause for gratitude on Thanksgiving day.

(As an interesting side note: even the psalm tone that we use to sing Psalm 113 is appropriate to the theme. The ancient tonus peregrinus is always used for this psalm. This translates as  ‘pilgrim tone’ and which was adapted from the pre-Christian Jewish liturgy. We sang it as  Anglican chant which adapts the tone to English, and uses four-part harmony.)

Paintings: top, Poussin: Moses String the rock to give water in the wilderness; and above, also Poussin, the Iraelites gathering manna in the wilderness.

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6 responses

25 11 2010
Pete

I first met you a few weeks ago when you delivered your presentation for Ron’s class. I was very impressed with you and the way you put “things” together.

This Email service you provide is also a very welcomed sight in my in box. Thank you very much!

Peace, joy and happiness to you and yours during this wonderful season and well beyond.

Thank you.

25 11 2010
davidicons

Dear Pete, what a lovely Thanksgiving message for me this morning. I think I’m warming to this American holiday! Best wishes, David

25 11 2010
Nancy

David, Here is what we uncovered from some historical research this morning. In George Washington’s proclamation of Thanksgiving he declared this a day of prayer and thanks to God. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of prayer and penance for the Civil War that was going on. Last year President Obama was the first president to mention God only indirectly through a quote of Washington. He has corrected that this year where his proclamation directly asks the people of this country to remember Thanksgiving as a day of thanks to God. In 1941 Franklin d. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the last Thursday in November (but not the last day) in order to boost the economy with more shopping days before Christmas!!! The Mass I attended this morning was completely full witnessing to the fact that many Americans still understand the true meaning of giving thanks to God for His many blessings. Happy Thanksgiving!

26 11 2010
davidicons

Thanks for that Nancy! Happy Thanksgiving (isn’t that the appropriate greeting?) Anyway, I hear so many different stories about what Thanksgiving is actually about, I’m never quite sure what the. I heard on the radio on Wednesday that George Washington seems to be the beginning of it as you say and I don’t remember that his speech mentions the Pilgrim Fathers at all, does it? To my recollection, in effect it’s really about giving thanks to God for the Constitution. However, whatever the origins the story of the Pilgrim Fathers has become a focus for the day, so that’s the story I write about!

26 11 2010
Nancy

Yes of course we talk about the Pilgrims and Native American Indians at the first Thanksgiving and that is what we teach in school. The information above is just more history. Before Washington I believe there were various statements about Thanksgiving they are also online but I have not read them. Washington, as the first president, was able to make Thanksgiving an official holiday in this country and you are right he does not actually mention the Pilgrims. Hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving with all of the appropriate food! Oh, there is of course Plymouth Plantation right here in Plymouth, MA where people dress up as Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians and act as they would have acted in 1620!!!

26 11 2010
DAVID CLAYTON

All great stuff, thanks for all the information. I’ll impress everyone at Thomas More College next year when I have to give the Thanksgiving banquet speech!

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