by Deacon Jason Ketz
Thanksgiving, or ”˜giving thanks,’ is one of the most dominant themes of both scripture and the Christian tradition. Not merely an annual celebration, giving thanks is a daily responsibility for followers of Christ. But why is thanksgiving so central to Christianity? What are we doing when we give thanks to God? Certainly, all of us learned in elementary school and even in Sunday school to make lists of things that we are thankful for. But is that really all that God expects of his children?
Giving thanks is also one of the common threads that connecting the Old and New Testaments. Our first encounter with scriptural offering of thanks is not through Jesus, or through St Paul, but at the heart of the Pentateuch, in Leviticus 7. And at its core, Thanksgiving is a sacrificial offering to God. Different from the sin offering, the guilt offering, the atonement (kpr) offering, the thanksgiving offering combines the peace offering and the cereal offering into a single liturgical rite. And the Law of Moses offers very strict guidelines for when and how it is to be performed.
Of course, neither the ancient sacrificial rite nor our modern list of thank-you’s are, of themselves, what God expects of us. The proper human response, and the fullness of our giving-thanks, is the state of mind that undergirds each gesture. Below each form of thanksgiving, old and new, is a change of heart; an awareness of our relationship with our Creator and our Redeemer.
Such a high understanding of giving thanks also developed in the Old Testament. Psalm 50 (LXX Ps. 49) poetically explains that the point of sacrifice is hardly the sacrifice itself, for God has no need for such things. “Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Ps 50:13-15). The change that thanksgiving brings about inside of us is a powerful one. We can only give thanks to God once we recognize that we are his creation, and as our creator, all blessings have God as our source. This is a significant correction from our “default setting” of entitlement. Ultimately, through giving thanks, we are offering up our own self-control, our own will, as a sacrifice to God, and accepting in its place the mercy that God continually shows us.
But to offer ourselves as a sacrifice (in any sense of the word) is a frightfully difficult challenge. A challenge so great, in fact, that it was only perfected through Christ’s own self-offering. Paul tells the Ephesians that “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2), and he did so by giving up the authority that was rightly his, in order to achieve something greater for us all (cf Phil 2:5-13). And when Christ became a sacrifice for us, he fulfilled all of the need for sacrifice (cf Heb 9:26, 10:12), but also set for us an example of the proper relationship between God and Man.
This relationship is none other than communion with our Lord, which we refer to as an offering of “Thanksgiving,” the Greek translation of the Eucharist. Now, in a spirit of thanksgiving, we approach our Lord at the chalice. But our position is unique. At the same time that we offer ourselves as sacrifice (Rom 12:1) and offer as a community “a sacrifice of praise,” we now partake of the sacrificial meal, as did the Levitical priests of old. And by placing us in this position, Christ has restored us to our proper place in the world. We now stand before him as the priests of his created world. Through the Eucharist, we are able to fulfill the vocation given to Adam and Eve, that we live as ministers of creation, under Christ, the High Priest (Heb 5:5, 9:11).
It is in precisely this role that we hear the Apostle Paul’s injunction to the Thessalonians, that we are to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Th 5:18). It is for this act of thanksgiving that we were created. It is not mere piety that drives our gratitude. As the beloved of our Lord, thanksgiving is our proper response to his salvation.
But what does this look like in the world? Such talk of our high calling as humans must eventually come face-to-face with our daily lives, our earthly reality. So how, then, is the fullness of our thanksgiving manifest? How do you and I move beyond Old Testament Sacrifices and Church School “thank you” projects, to actively show our thanks in a way pleasing to God? What does it look like, and where in that process do we encounter Christ?
Four authors have considered such bold questions, and offer to all of us their reflections on the subject in this season of Thanksgiving. Each has wrestled with the challenges of giving thanks to God for (or perhaps despite) what surrounds us, and each has come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be thankful in the eyes of God.
Mr Andrew Boyd speaks to the sad necessity of a “wake-up call” that we all experience, in reflecting on Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the East Coast. Only in the midst of tragedy can we actually separate what matters most from what we are fooled into prioritizing on a daily basis. Boyd further reminds us of the centrality of thanksgiving in our faith, and in our existence as Eucharistic beings. Mrs Rebekah Moll approaches Thanksgiving through a thoroughly Christian lens: Joy. As she highlights the wisdom of several female theologians, she leads her audience along her own path of learning to maintain her relationship with God through the simplest of “thank-you’s.” Through these small gestures, Moll asserts that we are able to truly rejoice in our salvation. Mrs Barbara Soroka relates several profound experiences in her work as a Special Education teacher. Through her work, she challenges the conventional model of presenting Christ to others through our daily actions. Instead, Soroka very clearly identifies that she has met Christ through those with whom she works the hardest, and then only when the interaction is allowed to happen without all of our self-imposed social constructs. Finally Mr Richard Ajalat calls into question perhaps the greatest myth of our age. Reminding us that we, as Christ’s disciples, have been called to action, Ajalat offers us all a powerful reminder that giving thanks is much more than merely saying ”˜thank you.’
As you all settle into the Advent fast, and prepare for your own Thanksgiving celebrations this week, I hope that you all spare a moment or two for reflection on precisely what it means to ”˜give thanks’ as a Christian. It takes a different shape for each of us, but our calling as God’s creation, and our ministry to the world, is certainly to “Give thanks for everything, at all times.”
Wishing you all a blessed Thanksgiving and start to the Advent season.
Dcn. Jason Ketz