Ópu eán í to ptóma, ekí synachthísondai í aetí.
Where the carcase is, there gather the birds of prey.
Birds of prey, vultures, eagles—many the translations, but the implication is, a creature with wings and a sharp beak to tear the flesh, whether alive or dead. Aetós—the same word is applied to the angelic being in eagle shape seen in Revelation (4:7) that is the emblem of St John the Evangelist. The obscurity of the passage in Matthew has produced a barrage of interpretations. I don’t know what it means, but I feel, whenever I hear it, that it has something to do with the way the world tends to close in on anything or anyone that it wants to destroy.
Thinking about the day on the other side of tomorrow, always brings this verse to mind. Tomorrow is an American holiday which was always my favorite as I was growing up, and later, as I was raising a family of my own—Thanksgiving Day—because it used to be the day when families reunited, when discord frequently melted away in the face of charity, and in the warm glow of bright candles gleaming in the early darkness of the coming northern winter, we all felt safe, satisfied, and at home in the world.
Some families I have visited had traditions like, going round the table and saying what each was thankful for. I think this is a good custom, but we didn’t have it. Instead, we just had a solemn blessing and prayer of thanksgiving at the beginning of the feast, a psalm was read or a hymn sung, and then, forgetting ourselves, we just passed the foods around the table. We all knew what we had to be thankful for, and we felt our thankfulness deeply, in ourselves and in being with each other, and in His presence.
That’s tomorrow—Thanksgiving Day—and the day after has come to be called Black Friday, because on that day, every retail merchant has terrific sales, sales to get their books, which are often ‘in the red’ (operating at a deficit), back to ‘in the black’ (showing a profit, not just ‘breaking even’). I don’t know how long this day after ‘Turkey Day’—the first holiday’s other name, in honor of the millions of that big bird traditionally consumed—has been called Black Friday. My family never shopped much that day.
As for me, I can’t stand crowds. I mean, crowds gathered for spectacles of consumer mania, though I also have come to avoid crowds gathered for other events, from monastery pilgrimages to political rallies. Spectator sports in person, going to the stadium, I also shy away from, but for a different reason—the traffic jams that accompany getting there and coming away. The only crowd I try not to avoid is the congregation gathered for worship and fellowship at my local parish church.
Back to that mysterious verse, this morning I reflected on how whenever something true and good appears in the world, there immediately begins to close in on it an armada of antigens. This, if nothing else, should be ample proof that the world we live in has something very, very wrong with it. Being always opposed to its own good, this seems to be the chief characteristic of the human world. We are given much, an incredible wealth, and rather than use it for betterment, we turn it against ourselves.
So Christmas has become so utterly commercialized, that only in the solemnity of church services do we find any solace at all. The decorations for the feast filled our local department stores even before the Halloween seasonals were taken down and put away for another year. I almost bought a beautiful Christmas wreath, till I remembered, it would be dried out and flimsy before Christmas ever arrived. Thanksgiving seasonals almost get crowded out, because there’s not much to sell, except turkeys.
Not much to sell, until the day on the other side of tomorrow—Black Friday. Then, the whole world will be selling itself at half off, extending credit beyond all capacity of paying within reasonable time so as to grab back those sale prices. People who couldn’t find the time or energy to stand, or even sit, in an hour long church service on Thanksgiving or any Sunday morning will be found standing, sitting, or even camping out for literally hours before the doors of some in-demand merchant—or, maybe not. Why?
Because now the stores are not satisfied by getting their populace up at the crack of dawn or in pre-dawn darkness the day after Thanksgiving, to stand in line in the cold, waiting for their fantasies to be fed. I’ve heard that some stores are opening their doors and honoring those Black Friday special prices at five or six o’clock the evening of Thanksgiving Day. I guess a new commercial holiday is about to be hatched—Black Friday Eve—and so, either we feast early or abandon all hopes of entering paradise.
Well, not paradise, exactly. In fact, not paradise at all, unless we’re talking about those birds of prey again. To me, Thanksgiving, the feasting and fellowship with friends and family that continues well into the night, is an autumn ikon of paradise, that state where we have allowed ourselves, for once, to ‘lay aside all earthly cares’ so that we may receive, not only ‘the King of all invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts,’ but the angelic hosts visibly upborne by the King of all—we, ourselves, our friends, our families.
These precious moments are God’s offering to us. This God of ours is the same God who, in the Old Testament, commands Israel to take a tithe of all they produced in the year, and go to Jerusalem and have a feast with it in His presence. This is a far cry from the tithe which we ‘owe’ to God, commanded by some in the Church. We can easily write Him a check and be done with it. No, the tithe that God commands is that which He wants us to enjoy, with Him, so that He can give us Himself in each other.
I am not going to gripe about the rampant materialism that has spoiled Christmas and soon may spoil Thanksgiving for some (if it hasn’t already). For me, scripture has to be fulfilled wherever I look, and that only peels more unwanted, dead skin off my bones—it’s all part of the process of living in the world but not being of it—and whether they know it or not, it is the same for everyone. The Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness can’t overcome it—the darkness is there, so we can find the way, and take it.
The dawn is cold and bright, the day before the feast. The frosted grass and leaves, the ice-glassed puddles on unpaved streets, soon will melt, coming to life, as the earth awakes as it always does, to greet the sun. Golden is the light on trees, those few whose leaves have not yet fallen. The real world is waking, with all its sounds and singing. We remember, these misty November days of lengthening shadows, all our beloved family and friends, our ancestors, who soon will sit with us at table.
As long as the earth endures, as long as we keep our hearts pure, loving mercy and peace, desiring the right, pursuing not pleasures that swiftly pass but that Paradise who comes and dwells in our midst, invisibly as Himself, visibly as each other, we will offer thanks and praises to the Most-High, because with us He has made a bargain, the best bargain that could ever be made, which He delivered to us on another Friday, blacker than any, yet brighter than anything we could have ever wanted.
Lasting to eternity, Your Word,
Yahweh, unchanging in the heavens:
Your faithfulness lasts from age to age;
You founded the earth to endure.
Creation is maintained by Your rulings,
since all things are Your servants.
Had Your Law not been my delight
I should have perished in my suffering.
I shall never forget Your precepts;
by these You have kept me alive.
I am Yours, save me…
from Psalm 119 (Day 25)