A season of thanks (Second Advent 2019)

If your neighborhood is anything like mine, people start “decorating” early for Halloween. There are leering Jack O’Lanterns and the ubiquitous ghosts, witches, and black cats. Some ambitious neighbors almost seem to revel in death and gore, dotting their lawns with tombstones and even the occasional effigy of a corpse swinging from a tree.

Call me oversensitive, but the whole season feels a bit like kids playing with firecrackers in a munitions dump.

Then, just as suddenly as it began, it’s all over. The Halloween paraphernalia come down, and Christmas decorations begin to appear, well before the Thanksgiving holidays.

It’s not that people forget about Thanksgiving. Indeed, some folks fret over it. The anxiety may be relatively simple, as in obsessing over the menu. Or it may be complicated, as in anticipating the inevitable chaos or conflict that comes whenever the extended family is gathered.

One woman, who was perennially the host for her family’s Thanksgiving feast, told me of the year that she decided to put an end to the family arguments that always marred the celebration. She met each guest at the door with a list of rules: Here’s the seating chart. Here’s a list of suggested topics of conversation, and here are the topics you may not discuss. If you a problem with any of this, leave now.

Having grown up in a Chinese family, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone doing this and getting away with it. The result of her draconian intervention? “It was the best Thanksgiving ever.”

It’s hard to argue with success.

Advent should itself be a season of both anticipation and thanksgiving. Whenever I think of biblical admonitions to gratitude, I come back to Paul’s encouragement to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16-18, NRSV).

There’s at least two ways one can read the text. One treats “the will of God” as something we must do to have God’s blessing. In that light, rejoicing, praying, and thanksgiving become three religious behaviors that we are commanded to practice if we want to be approved as disciples. The phrases “always,” “without ceasing” and “in all circumstances” remind us that we must remain on high alert for slip-ups. Hey, you down there. I don’t see a lot of joy in you. Yes, I know you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer. But you’re supposed to be a joyful Christian, remember? 

But there’s another way to read Paul’s words. “The will of God” is not simply what God wants from us, but what God wants for us: a life of communion with him through a habitual posture of prayer, and the joy and gratitude that flows from that way of living.

The two readings don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The first reminds us of the need for spiritual discipline. Because we live in a thoroughly secular world, our habits and attitudes must be trained. Bad news and difficult circumstances are not joyful, nor do they typically inspire thanks. But disciplined prayer helps us see beyond our circumstances to the gracious and glorious God who holds our ultimate destiny.

Without the second perspective, however, the first can deteriorate into legalism and shame. God becomes more demanding than loving. We feel compelled to act joyful, to put on a mask of gratitude to hide the pain, rather than patiently seeking gratitude through the pain, seeking the presence of God in the pain.

After all, during Advent, we remember what the angels announced to the shepherds at Christmas: tidings of comfort and joy. Joy, from God to us. The good news of God with us. 

And for that, we can be grateful.