“This chapel is now being used to care for infants after Typhoon Haiyan destroyed the original facility of the hospital.” (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
Last year, the Sandy Hook school shooting came just in time for Christmas. This year, a typhoon struck just in time for Thanksgiving.
I do not mean this as irony, or callousness, or dark humor. I mean that if our celebrations—our holidays—cannot exist in the face of the suffering and pain of reality, then we ought to find some that can, or give them up entirely. If they only exist because we either forget or choose to ignore suffering, they are mere sentimentality. If they have no legitimate response to pain, they are illusory. They are painkillers.
What is wrong with painkillers? First, they limit the capacity for feeling—including joy. Second, if they do not treat the cause of the symptom, but the pain only, then they enable the painless use of what is broken, which usually causes it to break more.
The Philippines are distant, despite technological advancements which have informed us that one of the worst typhoons in their history has devastated and killed thousands. Their pain is distant, too. But part of me wants to feel it, even as they feel it, so that I can grieve more with them, and encourage them. Why should I be glad when they are grieved? There is a deeper and tougher joy in shared grief than in maintaining my own personal flimsy happiness façade. Painkillers—such as holidays that have no legitimate response to this kind of suffering—may alleviate discomfort, but they alleviate real joy, too.
Second, suffering is the result of brokenness. A holiday that ignores the brokenness, instead of answering it, is only enabling the aggravation of that brokenness. If Thanksgiving is a time for me to forget about suffering, and not a response to the underlying cause of that suffering, then it is a comfortable lie. It is loading up on painkillers until I am able to clutch the searing-hot iron and keep on laughing.
For many, I fear this is all that Thanksgiving is—at best, a celebration of all that we have, because it would be unbearable if we had to live in the same poverty as the rest of the world. That is the Thanksgiving I want to reject. I want a holiday that offers a credible response to the suffering and pain in the world—to the typhoons and the school shootings.
The word “holiday” stems from “holy day.” That is what I need: something entirely set apart and wholly other, which responds to suffering not with materialistic inebriation but with sacredness—a Thanksgiving full of gratefulness for what I have received, and full of hope in the face of loss, too. I need a Thanksgiving in the staggering light of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter; a Thanksgiving not only for what I have been given, but primarily for whom; and although I may not be able to understand the intricacies of the ways of God, and how a good God can allow pain, I can know that he is a God who stepped into the world, took on human nature, suffered more deeply than any other, defeated death itself, and offers real hope and a real cure for broken people in a broken world. Hardly the opiate for the masses, this is a cause for honest celebration.