Hey, look! We’ve entered the “Harvest and Thanksgiving” section of the hymnal. And we start right off with the usual Thanksgiving song.
C.J.: There’s a usual song?
DONNA: “We Gather Together.”
C.J.: The song.
DONNA: That’s the usual song.
C.J.: So you know it?
DONNA: Everybody knows it.
C.J.: I don’t know it.
DONNA: [sighs] Didn’t you go to elementary school?
C.J.: Yes, right before being a National Merit Scholar.
(Sorry, West Wing fans, I couldn’t find a clip. But it’s season 2, episode 8, “Shibboleth”, written (of course) by Aaron Sorkin).
So yes, there’s a song. And somewhere later in the hymnal, we sing the usual words to the usual song. But here, in the “Harvest and Thanksgiving” section, we sing this paean to humanity.
We sing now together our song of thanksgiving,
rejoicing in goods which the ages have wrought,
for life that enfolds us, and helps and heals and holds us,
and leads beyond the goals which our forebears once sought.
We sing of the freedoms which martyrs and heroes
have won by their labor, their sorrow, their pain;
the oppressed befriending, our ampler hopes defending,
their death becomes a triumph, they died not in vain.
We sing of the prophets, the teachers, the dreamers,
designers, creators, and workers, and seers;
our own lives expanding, our gratitude commanding,
their deeds have made immortal their days and their years.
We sing of community now in the making
in every far continent, region, and land;
with those of all races, all times and names and places,
we pledge ourselves in covenant firmly to stand.
It’s not bad. Overall, it’s a decent “yay, humans” piece, sweet in an approaching-but-not-quite-completely-mired-in-treacle sort of way.
However – and here comes the serious quibble: What is hard is the ending of the second verse – I am not a fan of the idea that tragic deaths and assassinations are in any way a triumph. “They died not in vain” is a humanist’s way of saying “It is God’s will” and it constantly feels empty and angering. They died and they shouldn’t have is the only right answer. Maybe we get woke and stay woke because they died, but they still should not have died. Death is never a triumph and anyone who says that has a pretty twisted way of understanding life.
But I digress.
The question is this: on balance, would I use this hymn? Probably in the right setting, gritting my teeth through the end of verse two, made easier with a memory of the sweetest flentl in the entire series:
Perhaps it was this exact objection/question that led Bob and Dorrie Senghas to write the new version that is also in the hymnal. If I remember the story right, Bob was preparing a Thanksgiving service when the news came that Kennedy had been killed. What kind of Thanksgiving hymn could follow such a tragedy for the country? They wrote, “Both sorrow and gladness we find now in our living / We sing a hymn of praise to the life that we bear”–a very apt response to death, claiming no sure meaning in the sorrow, just praising life.
[…] December 9th, this tune first appeared, and I suggested that “later in the hymnal, we sing the usual words.” Well, that […]