More than a holiday:
What we usually think of as “Thanksgiving” is a holiday peculiar to the U.S. and Canada. It calls to mind the gratitude of Protestant colonizers for the blessings of the harvest as they forged new lives in a new land. But there is more to the heart of the holiday than a full belly. Thanksgiving acknowledges that we are dependent on the land to yield food. But it further acknowledges that God is sovereign over the land, and indeed over all of the factors that contribute to food production not to mention our very lives.
In the Book of Common Prayer we find specific prayers for agriculture, fisheries, and seasonable weather. We find a prayer for times of famine, and a service of thanksgiving for the blessings of harvest. And everywhere throughout we find general words and prayers of gratitude. This is because intentional thanksgiving is of the utmost importance to the life of faith.
Thanksgiving is counter-cultural
Everyday we are bombarded with messages that tell us we deserve the best. This is one of the key ways in which advertisers get us to buy things that we don’t need and often cannot afford. “You deserve it.” This is also one of the key ways in which Satan persuades us to sin – with the compound lie that “You deserve to be happy, and this will make you happy.” But nothing could be further from what scripture teaches.
Scriptures tell us that we are fundamentally undeserving. Our sin and rebellion against God means that we deserve death and hell. That he has made a way for us to avoid this consequence is 100% grace. This means that whatever other blessings we experience from God are not earned either, but are further evidence of his generosity and goodness. If our blessings are simply the result of our own hard work, or our karmic just desserts, why give thanks? But it is believers’ knowledge of what we actually deserve that prompts gratitude to God, both in good times and bad.
The “General Thanksgiving” prayer (from the Book of Common Prayer’s “Morning Prayer” service) begins with these words:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
We thine unworthy servants
do give thee most humble and hearty thanks
For all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men.
Did you notice that? Thanksgiving begins with an acknowledgement of our unworthiness and of God’s amazing goodness.
Know that you are blessed
There are times in life when thanksgiving comes naturally. The sun shines, our work and relationships satisfy, and our bodies and bank accounts thrive. But there are other times – common to all – when we experience grief, anxiety and suffering. At these times it can be a “sacrifice” to offer praise and thanksgiving; acknowledging that we are blessed, even though we do not feel like it.
“Whether we realize it or not, every one of us experiences God’s generous benevolence – in the very air we breathe, the life in our veins, and the goodness that still exists in the created world. Jesus told us that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Even those who refuse to acknowledge the source of these blessings benefit from them. Believers, however, recognize that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). This is why we bring to him all of our concerns, no matter how “unspiritual” they may seem to us to be. And this is why we give thanks to God for each new day, for the beauty in creation, for the people in our lives, and for the food on our tables.” (“622” Year 4, Lesson 22)
Look to the Giver and be transformed
Gratitude may begin with an inventory of our blessings, but it doesn’t stay there. By expressing our gratitude in thanksgiving to the Giver, we taken our eyes off of ourselves and our circumstances. We step back and remember that there is a bigger picture. Consider how the “General Thanksgiving” prayer continues:
We bless thee for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
But above all for thine inestimable love
In the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
For the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
When we focus too much upon ourselves, we can forget the blessings of the material world – and the one who created and still preserves it. When we focus too much upon our present circumstances, we can forget what God has done for us in the past – and promises to do for us in the future. But when we focus on the goodness of our Lord, our minds are transformed, our spiritual posture changes, and our hearts come to know true joy – joy that no circumstance can unmake.