Our season of Thanksgiving is upon us, and it is a beautiful reminder of all the many gifts we receive from God, not the least of which is good food and drink. Feasting is a large part of our Christian tradition and its roots in Judaism. God’s providence and the celebration of God’s bountiful harvest laid a foundation for a faith-wide time of celebration, similar in many ways to the practices that we have adopted and called Thanksgiving. We feast. We celebrate. We give thanks to God. Thanksgiving is a time of gratitude for abundance and God’s blessing.
But there is something our Thanksgiving lacks that was so important to Judaism and early Christianity. For the Jewish faith, in the midst of harvest celebration comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this special day of repentance, the Jewish people fasted as a sacrifice honoring all of the ways God provided for them, acknowledging all of the ways we human beings take these blessings for granted. Throughout the year, other minor fast days were observed, each with the theme of sacrifice on the part of the people in gratitude for the abundant goodness of God. Doing without helped the people remember what they had to be thankful for.
Beyond the religious observation, fasting took on a communal aspect as well. In fact, every religious observance in Judaism also held a practical benefit as well. Many communities fasted twice a week, with the express purpose of honoring God. But in agrarian societies that produced enough grain and fruit to feed a community for approximately 250 days each year, a dilemma emerged – namely that there are 365 days in a year. The solution? Make twice-weekly fasting a religious norm, thus reducing the drain on food by 104 days, and almost by magic everyone has enough! Build hunger and sacrifice into every person’s regular lifestyle, and thanksgiving and gratitude to God become normal. Help people feel and experience emptiness on a regular basis, and they cease to take things for granted.
This is the message for our Thanksgiving observances this year: fast before we feast. Our lives are so full of everything – food, drink, business, people, sound, images, TV, Internet, music – and these things keep us from acknowledging how blessed we truly are. In our days leading up to Thanksgiving, perhaps a day of fasting could turn our thoughts to God and how grateful we are that we do not live in hunger on a regular basis. Perhaps we could turn off all our gadgets for an entire day, and in the silence and lack of distraction, we could give thanks for those things that give us enjoyment and that make us productive. Perhaps we could take a day in personal and silent retreat, giving thanks to God for our relationships and the people who fill our lives with meaning.
So, before we feast, we fast. Before we enjoy the abundance, we acknowledge where the abundance comes from. We do without for a short while, in order to truly celebrate and appreciate all that we have to be thankful for. May God bless your Thanksgiving time, and fill your hearts with gratitude.
Grace and Peace,
Hee-Soo Jung, PhD
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).