All About Thanksgiving
The Christian Faith is all about thanksgiving. Our secular North American society thinks that thanksgiving is moderately important, and so it has a wonderful Thanksgiving Day feast once a year. I love this feast. Every October in Canada—my calendar tells me it is held in November in the US—when the leaves start to turn colour and the days become a little cooler, we gather if possible with our extended families and sit down to a turkey dinner. There are no pilgrims and no Plymouth Rock in sight up north, but the rejoicing in family warmth and domestic coziness is the same, I suspect, both north and south of the border. I do love Thanksgiving Day, even if in many secular households not everyone gives thanks to God for the day’s bounty. At least once a year our all-too-often self-entitled culture tells us that it is good to give thanks and to be grateful.
It is otherwise in the Church. In the Church, we are to give thanks not just once a year, but always, so that every day is a thanksgiving day. We are taught this at Vespers: “I will sing praises to my God while I have my being!” (from Psalm 104). We are taught this at Matins: “Let every breath praise the Lord!” (from the Praises). We are taught this at Divine Liturgy: “It is meet and right to hymn You, to bless You, to praise You, to give thanks to You, and to worship You in every place of Your dominion” (from the Anaphora). Praise and thanksgiving is what we do as Christians, not just once a year, but all day, every day. Obviously we don’t do this as successfully as we should. That is why we need the constant liturgical reminders. But it defines our Christian Faith nonetheless. That is why the main liturgical service, the one that reconstitutes us each week as the Body of Christ and forms the liturgical context for everything else, is called “the Eucharist”—from the Greek eucharistia, thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving not only defines us as Christians, but also as human beings—not surprisingly, if the soul (as the second century Christian apologist Tertullian noted) is “naturally Christian.” That is, what separates us from the animals is the ability to transcend ourselves and the realm of the senses and appetites through thanksgiving. My cat, lovely thing that she is, was not made in the image of God, and so cannot transcend the realm of the appetites and the senses in which she lives. She might love me (or might not; with cats it’s sometimes hard to tell), but even if she does love me, she never expresses it in thanksgiving. When I fill her food dish, she never stops, looks up at me and meows a word of doxology or gratitude. She simply chows down as if I do not exist. That’s okay. She’s just an animal. But we are not just animals, but strange and glorious amalgams of the animal and the spiritual, a kind of amphibian, living in both of the physical world and the angelic realm. As such we can transcend the merely physical in which we usually live, and rise up to God. Man is, as Father Alexander Schmemann once reminded us, homo adorans—“worshiping man”—and this capacity to worship is what constitutes the divine image in us.
Our annual secular reminder of this in the autumn is wonderful. Yet even more wonderful is our weekly reminder every Sunday. For there we are not simply reminded to give thanks, but through our weekly liturgical eucharistia are able to rise above the world, and commune with God, and find healing for our broken and ailing hearts. Family and turkey are great. The Kingdom of God is even better.