The story goes that in 1620 a group of pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts and that first winter in the New World was hard. The pilgrims underestimated the provisions they would need but the Native Americans shared their supplies, so the pilgrims survived. According to one account, the following harvest featured a celebration in which 90 Native Americans joined 53 European immigrants to share a feast. Legend has it that was the first Thanksgiving.
My memory of Thanksgiving as a child in the 1970s is one of unspoiled bliss. We’d travel a little over an hour as a family to the home of my grandparents in the Twin Cities. My mom was the oldest of five and each of her siblings had children so it was a wonderful time of connection with cousins, aunts and uncles.
I have no recollection of televised football in those days, nor of Black Friday. I suppose the two existed back then, but I wasn’t aware of it because the focus was on family, food and fun.
As we age, however, we become aware that life is not always so blissful. I have a number of friends for whom this Advent season is particularly difficult. Some have lost loved ones recently or are in the process of saying goodbye to loved ones, the pain of which is almost too much to bear. Still others are facing economic hardship, difficulties in employment or the sting of broken relationships. It’s hard to muster much gladness when darkness closes in.
And, of course, there is the ugliness of the recent campaign and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Some feel gloomy because their candidate did not win; others feel gloomy contemplating the prospect of a divided nation.
In either case, many of my friends do not feel that sense of nostalgic warmth this season. It’s not very “American” to be down-in-the-mouth during the holidays but I must confess it has been hard for me to be joyful lately. To me the autumn seemed like “a long day’s journey into night” (to borrow Eugene O’Neil’s phrase).
On Thanksgiving Day, for example, I reflected on the juxtaposition of Plymouth Rock and Standing Rock. Sadly, nearly 400 years later, the Sioux are fighting for land that was theirs to start.
Though at one time the Sioux freely occupied vast sections of North and South Dakota, in 1868 their land holdings were severely diminished by the Fort Laramie Treaty. In the 1870s there was a gold rush that threatened their well-being and today the fight is about oil.
Meanwhile, members of the alt-right political pole contend America belongs to those of European descent—they claim the white person made America prosperous and strong. But, if that is true, white people did so at the expense of the Native Americans. By that measure, we are occupiers.
About 2,000 years ago, there was another place on the globe that nourished the hopes of a people struggling under the iron fist of a great empire. The nation was Israel and the empire was Rome. The Romans were clever: they sustained power by letting the inhabitants of their conquered territories retain their customs while limiting their freedoms in other respects. At the time Jesus was born the Jews were allowed to practice their religion as long as they paid taxes to Rome and adhered to Rome’s laws.
Now, Israel was a little like the North Dakota of the Roman empire. If you were a Roman, Israel was not a particularly desirable destination. That said, it’s likely Rome wanted the land chiefly for its geographic position. The people of the land were incidental to the purposes of the Romans. As such, the Jews were an annoyance to be managed so that Rome could prosper.
The capital of Israel was Jerusalem. And just 5 or 6 miles south of Jerusalem lay Bethlehem, a little village known for its bread. In fact, the name of the town means “house of bread.”
The story goes that on that day so long ago, the Father sent his Son to be born…not in the heart of Rome’s capital and not even in the heart of Israel’s capital…but in a small town called Bethlehem, for a people whose strength had worn thin. Christ was not born to further the cause of the politically powerful; he was born for the powerless.
As I contemplate the meaning of Christ’s coming, I can’t help but wonder where he would be born if that history-making birth took place in America this year. And I feel it would be someplace not far south of North Dakota’s capital in an out-of-the way place on the west bank of the Missouri River called Fort Rice, which is just outside Standing Rock.
In those days, the shepherds of Israel were the first to hear the good news of his coming. Today, I imagine the angels surprising the Native Americans, keeping watch by the lake, proclaiming a Savior has been born, who is Christ the Lord—which is another way of saying: “The Good King has come!”
And society’s outcasts would hear the angelic song: “Peace on earth, good will to everyone!” Their hardship would soon be over. Deliverance would come, their hopes fulfilled.
The announcement from the angels, though not a political ad, would change the left and right sides of the body politic forever.
And, even as I wonder if this could happen today, I pray: “May it be so. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” That is my Advent prayer, whispered in the midst of controversy and turmoil, like the fading words of the ancient prophets. The prayer may sound weak and simplistic but I do believe it happens to be the kind of prayer God answers by coming close to those for whom the whisper was uttered.