It’s funny, what we’ve come to think of as “the first Thanksgiving.” Although it’s historically fabricated, many of us were brought up to envision an idyllic scene from the autumn of 1621. As the story goes, friendly local Native Americans had swooped in to teach the starving English Pilgrim Colonists how to survive. Then these fifty or so Mayflower survivors and their new Native American friends gathered around a table to eat a turkey dinner, with Indian corn, pumpkin pie, and a cornucopia of other autumnal delectables. In this tranquil imaginary portrayal, both the Pilgrim and Native American children are off to the side playing the first ever version of Corn Hole, while deer and other forest creatures look on with whimsical
curiosity. This sweet scene has both the Pilgrims & Native Americans, offering prayers of Thanksgiving together to the Christian God for their newfound friendship and prosperity. What’s funniest about all of this, however, is that we Americans tend to think of this as the first and most important Thanksgiving ever, in the very long history of the world. Of course, turkey, cranberry sauce, and mythical multicultural friendships aside, America’s Thanksgiving was far from being the first...or the most important.
When we read about the life of Saint Paul in the book of Acts and then later when we read his own letters to Christians in various areas, we discover that he was, in fact, a Thanksgiving junkie. He couldn’t thank God enough. Over and over and over again throughout all his letters to the Churches, he just kept being thankful to God. His advice to Christians is, “Be thankful in ALL circumstances, for this is God's will for all of you who belong to Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 5:20 & 1st Thessalonians 5:18). And Saint Paul lived that great sense of thankfulness in the worst of circumstances, by God’s grace...even when he and his missionary team member, Silas, were suffering, with their feet in stocks, in prison, at the darkness of midnight...there they were, singing hymns of thanks and praise to God at the top of their lungs, while the other prisoners listened to them (Acts 16:25). Paul was thankful because he realized that his chains helped him to advance the Gospel message (Philippians 1:12-14). Such Thanksgiving is humanly impossible...which means that it’s supernatural and essentially a gift from God. Saint Paul
understands that thankfulness isn’t just one of many virtues that characterize the Christian life, but rather that it’s the characteristic of faith in Christ. For Saint Paul, even without roast turkey and stuffing and even without a cornucopia of other delicious things set before him, Thanksgiving was a way of life...the way of being.
But why did Saint Paul consider Thanksgiving to be so very important for Christians? What is it about Thanksgiving that completes something in us?
The answer is found in the life and example of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amazingly, the Bread of Life, Himself, was thankful to His Father for His daily bread. “Then He took the five loaves and the fish, He thanked God for them, and broke them into pieces. Then He gave them to the disciples, who distributed the food to the crowd” (Matthew 15:36). The One who is our Wisdom was thankful to His Father for the wisdom given to the simple. “At that time Jesus prayed this prayer, “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank You for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike” (Matthew 11:25). The One whose words thundered through the heavens to move mountains, spoke words of thanksgiving to His Heavenly Father for hearing and answering His prayer at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. “Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe?” So, they rolled the stone aside. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father,
thank You for hearing Me. You always hear Me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent Me’” (John 11:40-42). The One who established the Passover in the Old Testament, became, Himself, the Passover Lamb...yet before
He took His place on the cross, He gave thanks to the Heavenly Father. “And when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me’” (Matthew 26:25). Jesus Christ expressed His gratitude—giving thanks. It’s wild for us to imagine, but over and over we see examples of one member of the Trinity thanking another member of the Trinity...God in Thanksgiving to God. They are constantly in a state of offering to each other and constantly thanking each other. There is the first and most important Thanksgiving. If the Creator of this world offered thanks, then shouldn’t we follow in His footsteps?
The truth is, the best reason for giving thanks is that it makes us more Christ-like...unifying us with God. Why else do you think that our Church put thankfulness at the heart of our central sacrament within the Diving Liturgy, with the expectation that it should flow forth from there into all of the rest of our lives? The very word, “Eucharist,” comes from the Greek word for “Thanksgiving.”
At the part of the Divine Liturgy that comes just after we recite the Creed, the priest proclaims, “Let us lift up our hearts...Let us give thanks to the Lord.” And the people respond together that “This is proper and right.” Then throughout the consecration prayers, the priest begins offering up many prayers of thanksgiving.
The Divine Liturgy is meant to launch us upon an adventure that approaches every circumstance with hearts full of Thanksgiving to God! It’s meant to ingrain into each of us an attitude of priesthood—where we offer up every encounter with any person, or any encounter with any other part of creation as an opportunity to transform it and offer it back up to God in praise and Thanksgiving. So, giving thanks isn’t just a small prayer we say before receiving a meal. Neither is it something we only do once a year on a national holiday. Rather, Thanksgiving is the way we participate in the Source of all being...and the way we continue receiving being from Him. The life of Christ stands forth as a life lived in Thanksgiving—surrounding every moment with thankfulness and praise. On this Throwback Thursday, let’s meditate upon the
first and most important Thanksgiving...the one that happened between the members of the Trinity. May we become like our Lord, as we begin to learn what it truly means to “Enter into His gates with Thanksgiving, and into His courts with hymns, being thankful to Him, and blessing His name. For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting; and His truth endures to all generations” (Psalm 99:4-5).