Thanksgiving and the Fruits of the Holy Spirit

As I write this tens of millions of Americans are crossing our country to join relatives and friends for our annual celebration of Thanksgiving Day. According to the U.S. Census Bureau []:

In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims, early settlers of Plymouth Colony, held a three-day feast to celebrate a bountiful harvest, an event many regard as the nation's first Thanksgiving. Historians have also recorded ceremonies of thanks among other groups of European settlers in North America, including British colonists in Virginia in 1619. The legacy of thanks and the feast have survived the centuries, as the event became a national holiday in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving. Later, President Franklin Roosevelt clarified that Thanksgiving should always be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the month to encourage earlier holiday shopping, never on the occasional fifth Thursday.

In addition the Census Bureau notes that the foods that make up the traditional Thanksgiving feasts are fitting symbols of our nation’s bounty. Consider:

· 248 million turkeys are expected to be raised in the USA this year, nearly a quarter of them in Minnesota. The typical American ate over 13 pounds of turkey in 2009.

· 750 million pounds of cranberries are forecast to be produced; and well over half of all cranberries are grown in in Wisconsin.

· 1.1 billion pounds of pumpkin were produced in 2010, over forty percent of it in Illinois.

We are abundantly blessed with food in this country. Yet according to Feed America… 2010 nearly 49 million people in the United States—one third of them children—were living in “food insecure” households []. At the same time, the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that one-third of all adults and one-in-six children or teens in the U.S. are obese []. Yet a 2010 study conducted for the National Institutes of Health estimated that forty percent of all food in the USA is wasted each year [].

Something is wrong. We have been incredibly blessed yet it seems that at least in the area of food we are not very good. Our freedom to produce a lot and eat a lot has left too many of us fat, too many of us hungry, and too much of our food in the garbage.

Of course, our troubles as a nation are often reflections of our own personal difficulties, habits, inconsistencies and yes, sins. We have a lot of freedom—so much that many of our leaders seem very anxious to export it to other nations (ironically, even by force)—but how well do we exercise it? This, of course, is not solely a challenge for us or our nation. It’s a very human and very ancient problem: How well do we integrate freedom, blessings, and responsibility?

St. Paul had to confront this issue in many of the communities he evangelized. Some of them were in what was then known as Asia Minor and is now part of Turkey. These churches were in places like Antioch, Derbe, Pamphylia and Iconium. The Galatians were probably the descendants of Celts who had invaded and settled in that region several centuries earlier. After they had been visited by Paul, many of them converted to Christianity. Paul grew frustrated with those who subsequently fell under the influence of those factions in the early church who also demanded fidelity to the Jewish law as part of that commitment. He spends the first four chapters of his Letter to the Galatians urging them not to become “slaves” to the law (e.g. 4:8-11).

Paul urged them instead to embrace the freedom that they had been given through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. “For freedom Christ set us free;” he implored, “so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). He recognized, however, that freedom itself could easily degenerate into its own form of slavery—to our appetites, to the moment, to human weakness and our tendency to sin or what the Church calls concupiscence (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1264).

That slavery to a distorted, irresponsible and self-indulgent exercise of freedom, Paul saw, led to what he called “the works of the flesh…: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies and the like” (Galatians 5:19-21a). It’s a pretty nasty list.

The alternative or antidote to living “according to the flesh”—thinking, saying, and doing whatever we want, whenever we want, with or to whomever we want—is living according to the Spirit, i.e. allowing the Holy Spirit that is given us through the grace of Christ to direct our freedom. Paul went on: “In contrast [to the works of the flesh] the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a).

When we use our freedom as God intended, that’s how we and others can see it.

As we celebrate at Thanksgiving the gifts of God’s abundance in nature, our freedom and the many other blessings we have received we also pray for the fruits of the Spirit to be more manifest in how we live.—JC