The Thanksgiving holiday is slowly turning into an after thought as each year Christmas decorations are popping up well before turkey day. This, coupled with the secularism of our present culture may have turned the focus of Thanksgiving more towards feasting, football, shopping and a four day weekend. Nevertheless, we must not forget the history and the religious significance of this holiday. We’re all familiar with the story in 1621 as the first recorded Thanksgiving, where the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians gathered for a three-day feast of Thanksgiving to God for their plentiful harvest. Without this harvest from the land, their very bodily survival was in jeopardy of death.
There is also the event that took place in Saint Augustine, FL on September 8, 1565, fifty-six years before Plymouth. On that day, Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles and 600 Spanish settlers celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving for their safe arrival in the New World and then held a feast of bean soup with Timucua Indians. Interestingly, history suggests that the first Thanksgiving in America in St. Augustine, FL was a Catholic Mass. Be that as it may, the concept of thanksgiving is deeply rooted in the Bible. Therefore, Thanksgiving hearkens back to an appreciation of life and God providing the very resources to sustain our lives. Historically, Thanksgiving was viewed as a holy day more than a holiday, where society ceased from their work and gave thanks to God for all his goodness. So, rather than recite mere vague sentiments of thank you, Thanksgiving specifically articulates a gratitude for our life to God.
How can we appreciate the “thanks” in thanksgiving? To state the obvious, I didn’t create myself. I didn’t create the 3.4 billion letters in the genetic code in my DNA that governs the intricacies of my body. I did not create my nervous system, digestive system, circulatory system, skeletal system, etc. I had nothing to do with this. I simply showed up and everything in my body and in the universe was created and functioning well. Once a person realizes that he did nothing prior to deserve life, and that the gift of life is pure gravy, he’ll be profoundly grateful to the one who gave him life. The key is to zero in on this state of gratitude.
The word “gratitude” is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what someone receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the good in their lives. In this gratitude process, people usually recognize that the source of this goodness lies outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people eliminate a self-centered disposition and connects them to the very entity that created them – God. Here, the words of the prophet John ring true in which he stresses that he must decrease so God can increase in him (see John 3:30).
Why is the “thanks” in Thanksgiving so crucial? Not only does thankfulness make someone less self-centered, research in psychology reveals that people who are grateful, experience more happiness. That is, there is a direct connection to gratitude and a better psychological disposition. Even more so, having gratitude allows a person to handle the various struggles in life with relative ease. As one finding stated, “When people are faced with adversity or traumas if they are able to experience gratitude, they are able to push through the adversity or trauma and be more resilient.”
A group of researchers began noticing that those who were more greatful were constantly in better modes than those who weren’t. They went on to study this and concluded that having authentic gratitude was they key ingredient for happiness. “As gratitude involves wanting what one has rather than having what one wants, instilling a sense of gratitude may help people appreciate the gifts of the moment and experience freedom from past regrets and future anxieties. With gratitude comes the realization that happiness is not contingent upon materialistic happenings in one’s life, but rather from being embedded in caring networks of giving and receiving.” (Froh, J.J, Emmons, R. A., Card, N. A., Bon, G. Wilson, J. A. ,2015, p. 300)
In a grateful state, a person will be more fulfilled, content, and peaceful. Conversely, those who are ungrateful tend to be more upset, demanding, unpleasant, and self-absorbed.
Thomas Aquinas places gratitude under the virtue of justice (ST II Q 106). With this, Aquinas asserts that gratitude is actually a duty, or an obligation, you owe to another. This duty of gratitude is a response to what has been given to you. What Aquinas goes on to articulate is if you don’t have a sense of gratitude from within, but rather have a demanding “give me” disposition, it reveals that your soul is in a state of vice. The goal, of course, is to increase the virtues in the soul while decreasing the vices.
Biblically speaking the phase “giving thanks” is a major theme throughout the story of salvation. It was the “thank-offering” or sacrifice of thanksgiving that was a prominent liturgical offering under the Law of Moses.
“If he offer it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer with the sacrifice of thanksgiving unleavened cakes mingled with oil, and unleavened wafers anointed with oil, and cakes mingled with oil, of fine flour, fried” (Lev 7:12)
David continuously presented this thank-offering in order to connect the people closer to God (see 1 Chron 16: 1-43, 29:10-16, 2 Sam 17:18-29). We also see that the thank-offering is repeatedly sprinkled throughout the Old Testament (Lev 7:15, 22:29, Psalm 7: 17, 50:23, 56:12-13, 107:21-22, 116:17, 2 Chron 29:3, 33:15-16, Jer 17:26, 33:11).
It’s interesting to note that in the Old Testament, the thank-offering of bread was always the central sacrifice. In the New Testament, this theme of “bread” and “thanks” also go hand-in-hand. Besides the words “bread” and “thanks” we also notice certain verbs that communicate what God is doing with this bread.
Jesus’s apostles carefully recorded the appointed means of consecrating this bread. As John indicates, “He took the loaves, and when He had given thanks, He distributed to the disciples.”
Compare this with Luke’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. “He took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and gave unto them.” Again, a fuller account of the consecration of the loaves is given by the other Evangelists: “He. . .took the five loaves and the two fishes,” mentions Matthew, “and looking up to heaven, He blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to His disciples.”
It is as if Matthew repeats this phrase with his account of the Last Supper. “Jesus took bread and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples.” Again, in the second miracle of the seven loaves, we observe the same form: “He took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks and brake them, and gave to His disciples.”
And the form is the same in the account of our Lord’s celebration of the Sacrament after Jesus’s resurrection: “As He sat at table with them, He took bread and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.” And in Paul’s account we read, “he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all, and when he had broken it, he began to eat.” (John 6:11. Luke 22:19. Matt. 14:19. Matt. 26:26. Matt. 15:36. Luke 24:30. Acts 27:35 1 Cor 11:24)
Do we begin to see a pattern here?
When Jesus instituted the Eucharist, he clearly established it as an act of thanksgiving in which the Old Testament thank-offering now becomes a new sacrifice. With these verbs of “took,” “blessed,” “broke,” and “gave,” Jesus is now transforming the O.T. thank-offering into his sacrifice on the cross. This way, his very body and soul is now transmitted in a means we can consume (see CCC 1346). It just so happens that the first time the word “priest” is used in the Bible this particular priest offered bread and wine to connect man back to God (see Gn 14:18-20, Hebrews 7: 17).
It is significant to understand the Greek word “eucharisteo” is where we get the English word “Eucharist.” “Eucharsteo” means “to give thanks.” Therefore the Eucharist is the ultimate act of thanksgiving of God (see CCC 1329). If we think about this, the “thanksgiving” and “bread” elements are embedded throughout the Mass. The climax of the Mass is the presentation and receiving of the Eucharist while the entire Mass is drenched with prayers of thanksgiving. As the priest says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” while the congregation replies, “It is right and just.” The Preface continues, “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father.”
Given this, we can understand that the Mass is an exchange of thanksgiving (and an exchange of sacrifices). In the Eucharist, the thank-offering that unites man with God is presented to the congregation and then received by the faithful. In turn, the faithful come to Mass to offer prayers of thanksgiving precisely for the very thank-offering that they will receive to cleanse their soul.
With our current holiday of Thanksgiving, the meal is the focal point. We need to have a perfect turkey and all the right sides. While we might obsess with the meal at Thanksgiving, with God, the same concept allies. A sacred banquet meal is continually presented throughout the Old and New Testament. From the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden where they can “eat from any of the trees,” to the sacred banquet on God’s holy mountain of Zion, from the miraculous feast of loaves and fishes that Jesus provides for his followers, to the “last supper” that Jesus shares with his apostles and finally, to the wedding feast of the lamb in the book of Revelation.
All of these biblical feasts demonstrate what God intends for each one of us – to unite us in a life-giving, holy, and eternal communion with Him and with one another. This communion is so intimate, it is poetically depicted as consuming God’s being in us through a meal. Here, the physical and spiritual dimensions unite. God (spiritual) becomes man (physical) and provides us with a sacrifice of bread and wine (physical) in order to heal our soul (spiritual) back to Him (cf. Col. 1:15-16, John 6: 30-58).
We notice a lot of passages that talk about consuming the word of God through eating (see John 6: 32-58, Matthew 26:26, Ezekiel 3: 1-3, Psalm 34:8, Revelation 3:20, 10:9-10) and coming closer to God through a great banquet meal (see Exodus 12:8, 11, 24: 11, Isaiah 7:7, 25: 6-9, 55:2-3, Psalm 23:5 Proverbs 9:5, Luke 14: 16-18). Therefore, these verses illuminate that God intends to share an intimate meal with us that unites the physical and spiritual dimensions together. A meal that will draw us deeper into Himself and will satisfy our ultimate hunger of the soul.
This Thanksgiving holiday, as we gather with family and loved ones to share a lively meal around our own banquet table, let us remember that the joy of our feast is only a reflection of the life-giving communion offered to us by Jesus within the context of the true thanksgiving- the Eucharist. This side of heaven, the fullest way we can participate in this fulfillment is to partake of the Eucharistic banquet. Rather, than filling our bellies, the real Thanksgiving meal is designed to fill our souls.