It may, if you think about it, seem little bit odd that our main way of giving thanks on this day is by eating. To be sure, there are other important ritual acts of Thanksgiving: the pre-dawn procession of the turkey roasters, the traditional cheek-pinching and hair-tousling of the young, with its own ritual verbal formula: “Give your aunt a hug,” to which the proper response is, “Well, look at how much you’ve grown!” And of course there’s the traditional Thanksgiving football game, either played or watched, which immediately follows the sacred loosening of the belts.
But the main event, of course, is the meal. And as odd as it may seem intellectually that we give thanks by feeding ourselves, that is what human beings have always done. Whenever we have something to be thankful for – a birth, a wedding, a good harvest, a victory – we call together those who share our joy, and we give thanks with a feast.
And we Christians do the same. Our Sunday gathering to share bread and wine in Jesus’ name is also called “Thanksgiving,” for that is exactly what the Greek word “Eucharist” means.
And in ordinary times we do the same things in church every Sunday that we do in our homes on Thanksgiving (except, in most cases, the football). We gather together, we tell old family stories, we remember those who because of distance or death can’t be with us, we hug, we come to the table, we eat, we drink. And in every part of it – the gathering, the storytelling, the remembering, the meal – we remind ourselves to give thanks to God for providing the feast, to Jesus for calling us together, to the Holy Spirit for inspiring us to live as thankful people.
So how do we live as thankful people? How do we make “Eucharist” – thanksgiving – a way of life, instead of something we do once a week, or once a year? It’s a particularly important question in anxious times, when uncertainty and genuine hardship cause such anxiety for us, our families, our neighbors, and, these days, the whole world.
I guess the main thing is to actually give thanks. It’s another strange thing, perhaps, but it turns out that the act of giving thanks – of saying “thank you” – is actually more important than trying to develop a thankful heart in yourself. In fact, the act of giving thanks is the best way to dispose your heart toward thankfulness. I know that appears backwards. Giving thanks seems like it ought to spring from a thankful heart. But it actually works the other way around. Giving thanks – becoming mindful of the things for which you are grateful and of those to whom you owe thanks – exercises the “thankfulness muscles” of your heart and makes them stronger. And it has the added benefit of being something you can do even when you don’t feel thankful. I might say especially when you don’t feel thankful.
And, of course, the second part of giving thanks, beyond saying “thank you,” is the giving. Our ancestors believed that the first tenth of everything they received was to be given back to God. Not just a tenth, but the best tenth. The ripest fruit, the fattest, healthiest animals, the plumpest grain: the stuff that goes to the Farmer’s Market instead of to the chain grocery store.
Our ancestors understood that in giving to God as a way of thanking God for giving to them the best of God’s creativity, passion and love, they were free to fully enjoy the rest without shame or guilt. And they knew that in lean times, the God who was always with them suffered with them, feeling their pain, weeping their tears. Giving thanks, it seems, is even more important in hard times.
And the third part of giving thanks is truly enjoying the gifts for which we are thankful. Not to do so is to dishonor the gift. The meal, the company, the God who gives them are all to be savored, relished, enjoyed, delighted in.
As we come out of the worst of the pandemic, you may still not be having the kind of Thanksgiving gathering you usually do. But if it is smaller, quieter, more melancholy than in years past, there may in that reality be a chance for a little more reflection on the things that truly matter in in our lives.
So let us not only be thankful, but give thanks. And let the good food and good company and good grace of your Thanksgiving meal be at the back of your mind every time we gather for our Sunday Thanksgiving. And let the prayers and stories and the communion of our Sunday gathering be at the heart of your Thanksgiving feast wherever and however you may be enjoying it. Remember all those to whom you owe thanks, and make an effort to thank them in whatever way you can.
And remember especially our God, to whom we owe all thanks, and try, in celebration and in daily life, in times of joy and in times of anxiety, to give thanks to God, the giver of all good things, to Jesus, both giver and gift, and to the Holy Spirit, who gives us the power and the wisdom to give thanks.
The Rev. Dr. Bill Doggett