Gerda Weissmann Klein was a holocaust survivor who told a remarkable story of survival in her memoir, All But My Life. In the book, Klein describes the loss of all she had, everything but her life. By the end of World War II, Gerda lost her parents, her brother, her home, and almost all her material belongings. Yet, in the midst of a Nazi death camp, she describes the loving community that formed around her, a community that helped her survive unspeakable horror.
In a later radio interview, Klein was asked, “How did you go on?” She told how she long pondered a single question: “If, by some miraculous power, one wish could be granted me, what would it be?”
Gerda said that her wish was for a single night of normalcy at home, her father smoking his pipe, her mother working at her needlepoint, her brother and she just doing their homework. What Gerda longed for, in short, was something seemingly mundane. The thing that enabled her to survive was her longing for (and ultimately finding) a loving community.
As Americans (and Texans, at that) we tend toward rugged individualism. We work hard. We give much and do everything possible not to burden others. Because of our heritage, we run the risk of thinking our individualism is a virtue.
At Thanksgiving, this individualism starts to melt away. We long to be with others, to share traditions, family and friends. The great thing about Thanksgiving is it forces us out of our individualism, at least for a time, and makes us remember that life is best when lived as part of a shared community.
I don’t intend to paint too idealized a portrait of this. I recognize that, for many, the holidays bring painful memories and fears of being lonely. Yet we should never forget the power of community to heal wounds, to encourage, and to lift up. In short, we’re better together.
When it comes to our faith, we ought to realize that the Christian life was never intended to be lived alone. When Jesus returns to abolish sin and to restore his creation, St. John describes it like this: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21.2).
This is how important the church community is to God. The church, consisting of a community of saints, is Christ’s bride. This is why, at his second coming, Jesus returns with “all the holy ones with Him” (Zech 14.5). He returns to unite the church on earth with the church in heaven. Jesus returns not to draw individuals to himself, but a community of saints.
Thanksgiving is a marvelous, quintessentially American holiday. We pause to give thanks for the gifts God has given to us. With St. Paul, let’s pray this Thanksgiving for “the Lord to make [us] increase and abound in love to one another and all men” (1 Thes 3.9).