As with so many of our holidays, Thanksgiving Day has always been wrapped up in a great deal of nostalgia for me. It’s a time filled with fond memories: of family gatherings with loved ones long passed from our sight; meticulously decorated tables accented by white linen and candlelight (in the afternoon, no less!); and, yes, the all-encompassing taste and aroma of huge, roasted turkeys, mashed potato smothered in gravy, pumpkin pies… and oyster stew.
That’s right… oyster stew. Whereas I don’t recall it actually ever being part of the menu for Thanksgiving Dinner, I have to tell you I’ve always associated oyster stew with this time of the year. And that’s largely because growing up in Maine, Thanksgiving weekend always involved for us a day or two in the woods at my Dad’s little hunting camp, taking advantage of the last couple of days of deer season. And almost without exception, on one of those cold late November nights into camp, my father would stoke up the old Clarion wood stove at the camp and cook us up a pot of his special oyster stew.
I’ve come to understand over the years that with most people, there’s no halfway about oyster stew; you either absolutely love it or hate it with a passion! But friends, let me tell you that as far as I’m concerned, after a day of tramping through Aroostook County pucker brush (often in a foot of snow by this time of year), there was nothing better than a big bowl of my Dad’s oyster stew! Even all these years later, all it takes is to step out into the cold November air for the smell and taste and the utter feeling of the stuff to all come back to me!
I’ve made a pot or two of oyster stew on my own, of course; but it’s never been quite the same. Oh, it’s tasted alright, but I’ve come to realize that what made those stews so wonderful for me was where it came from. It was because my father made it; and that as we ate out there in the woods, together with the other men who ventured out there with us, we’d be telling stories (that got taller with every passing year!), and learning the ways of nature and of the world. The meal could have just as easily been leftover turkey, or a bologna sandwich; that didn’t matter nearly as much as what came with the meal. All these many years later, that’s the food that has endured.
When they came looking for Jesus that day, they’d come well fed, their bellies full from having eaten the loaves and fishes they’d been given the day before. But in fact they were still hungry; although like so many of us they weren’t at all sure what they were hungry for. All they knew is what they’d received amongst the five thousand had left them wanting more; because now, after having shared this meal with Jesus, they had feelings deeper and more profound than anything they’d ever expected or experienced before. This had been Manna from heaven, and then some!
And so now they followed Jesus – across the sea to Capernaum, even – so they could get some more of that! What they would soon learn, however, is that what which had filled them so wonderfully was not, after all, bread and fish but rather the nourishment another kind of food; “the food that endures for eternal life.” More than Manna in the wilderness, this was “the true bread of heaven,” the life given to the world by God through Jesus Christ.
Turkey dinners, oyster stew – for that matter, all the meals we consume from day to day – according to Jesus, this is all food that will ultimately perish. Like so much of the “stuff” of life we desperately cling to, it nourishes the body and might well satisfy the longing of the moment, but inevitably come tomorrow we’ll be hungry again; wanting more, yearning for something so important and essential that was lacking before. Ultimately, the food we truly need is that bread that Jesus alone can offer, the bread that comes from God: spiritual food that nourishes the soul not only for now but for always, providing sustenance and strength both in good times and amidst the struggles that seem rife with hopelessness and despair. With this bread, Jesus says, we will be made strong and filled with good things.
“Sir, give us this bread always,” they said to Jesus, and even then they didn’t really understand. But then again, sometimes as we pause to give thanks amidst the chaos and confusion of a holiday, neither do we; this incredible truth that it’s not what we have that makes us blessed, but rather the grace of the one who gives us all that we have. May a new awareness of God’s presence to us in Jesus Christ our Lord come to us as Thanksgiving Day approaches, for therein will lie our true blessing and our greatest nourishment.
c. 2012, 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry