When I first came to live in the US, I assumed that Thanksgiving was the kind of harvest festival I knew from the village church to which I was reluctantly and uncomprehendingly taken for “high” days: Christmas, Easter and Harvest Festival. The 17th century building was aglow: the pulpit ledge piled high with local produce, several outsize sheaves of wheat leaned against the Choir Screen and the back of the church was filled with heaps of vegetables. This was not, of course, a national holiday, and vast numbers of the UK population had long been torn from their agricultural roots by the Industrial Revolution, and although some of their great, great grand children would probably say, “I am, C of E” (i.e. Church of England) they never crossed the portals of churches that are to be found in every city, town and village. In other words, Thanksgiving was very much a religious affair, and was always on a Sunday.
My First Thanksgiving in the US
So what did I make of the scene here? My first impression was that the holiday was about food, family and the pre-eminence of the USA, and I was struck by the feeling that this was as much a secular, national holiday as a religious festival. When I came to do a bit of reading I noticed several things. That it was, at the very beginning, the harvest festival of the old England transplanted to New England and lasted three days seemed historically accurate, but that its first celebrants were paragons of free choice and religious freedom suggested by a recent writer on the Web who says: “Thanks to the Pilgrims, we have greater freedom in religion & government today” struck me as wildly off target historically.
As so often happens, a persecuted minority became persecutors almost as soon as they established authority over others, displaying typical Puritan attitudes: rigid control of private and familial behavior; devaluation of other faiths; interpreting misfortune and sickness as divine judgment, all these soon became mandatory in the earliest colonies.
I learned that it was not until 1863, Lincoln proclaimed the final Thursday in November to be kept as a national holiday, and I concluded that the evolution of Thanksgiving as a national holiday displayed many of the ambiguities of the emerging doctrine of separation of Church and State.
While no particular form of religion (various brands of Christianity and, in the last half century, other religions than Christianity) has been connected to any established or State church, a generally diffused and somewhat vague belief in God has remained a potent force in our society. It is that, I think, that has produced a festival that has clear overtones of national greatness mingled with religious sentiments.
I would suggest that an antidote to all this ambiguity is to draw a distinction on the one hand between a biblical understanding of just how central thanksgiving is in Christian theology and practice, and, on the other, the perfectly laudable festival of Thanksgiving, established by Presidential decree with its emphasis on the greatness of America and the importance of family cohesion.
Thanking In the Bible
The Bible is permeated with a sense of our human dependence on and our total debt to God for simply everything we have or can do. In the O.T. there are two places, however, where this sense is particularly striking: the first is the Book of Deuteronomy. This is a fairly late re-write of the earlier traditions and it stresses again and again that it was Yahweh alone who made the Hebrews a nation and gave them their own land. It is interesting to note that the authors foresaw the dangers of jingoism: in ch.7 .7 we read, “It was not because you were more numerous (therefore stronger & greater) than other people that Yahweh…chose you – for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because Yahweh loved you…that [He] has brought you out with a mighty hand.” This is not the only time the authors express this idea, and it is always followed with an exhortation to remember Yahweh and give thanks.
The other place where thanksgiving is prominent is in the Psalms, some of which, like Ps. 136 are entirely a Hymn of thanksgiving; today’s gradual Psalm is typical of many others.
The New Testament
The note of thanksgiving is even more pervasive in the N.T. Paul frequently begins a letter with profound thanks to God for the growth of commitment to Jesus, the gift of whom is the focus of all Christian thanksgiving. C.B.E. Cranfield, writes, “Thanksgiving is not meant to be merely words, but the very mainspring of Christian living, the right motive of all service”. (Theol. Word Bk. Bib p. 254). There are very few recorded sayings of Jesus in which he explicitly says “thank you” to God, but the whole tone of Jesus’ teaching exemplifies the attitude of thanksgiving. In everything he does, Jesus looks to God. He does not claim to heal by his own power, but acting as the agent of the loving Father; he says that he casts out demons “by the finger of God”. All the accounts of his praying imply an attitude of complete dependence on God, most strikingly in Gethsemane: “your will be done”.
The Essence of Thanksgiving
This sense of utter dependence on God is at the heart of thanksgiving, which is to be the central attitude of the Christian towards God, and this is of central importance, it is also to be our attitude towards others who, as members of the body of Christ, share with us total indebtedness to God. All this is brilliantly summed up in the General Thanksgiving, composed for the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and found in our present PB at the end of Morning Prayer. We give “humble thanks” to God “for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life; but above all for [the] immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ”. (BCP, 1979, p. 101).
Two Closing Points
The placing of thanksgiving at the center both of the Christian life and of prayer, suggests that Thanksgiving Day can be a time to re-evaluate the way we use the personal pronouns “me” and “mine”. “What I do in my own backyard is nobody’s business” is a view frequently expressed, but it is hardly acceptable even on a secular, social level. For a Christian it should be unthinkable, knowing that all I possess is not mine in any final sense, but given me by God as a trust to be used for the divine glory and the common good.
Finally, it is no accident that the gospel for today is a meditation by the author of the Fourth Gospel on the central act of Christian worship, the Eucharist, which, of course, is the Greek word to give thanks. What is central to the Christian life is also central to Christian worship. As Jesus gave thanks over the bread and the wine, so week by week we give thanks as we celebrate the Eucharist which sums up all our thanks to God “for all the blessings of this life” and above all for the life and death of Jesus by which we are re-united with God.