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The Meaning of Thanksgiving Through the Ages

by Rev. Paul D. Griffin

As every schoolchild knows, Thanksgiving Day in America commemorates the celebratory meal of thanksgiving that the Pilgrims enjoyed with the Americans who were native to the area of what is now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. There can be little doubt that these early settlers and their gracious hosts could not possibly have envisioned the tremendous effect that their small gathering continues to have upon our American psyche and culture.

Yet, while the image of these settlers gathered around several tables with their hosts in an effort to give thanks to God for his many blessings upon them may appear rather novel to many contemporary Americans, the practice of giving thanks to God while sharing a meal has its origins in the Jewish Passover meal, which many scholars believe Jesus was celebrating when He instituted the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist (which is a Greek word for "thanksgiving") on Holy Thursday, the eve of His crucifixion.

For people of the Jewish faith, the Feast of Passover celebrated the Exodus event in which the Israelites were released from their slavery to the Egyptians. This dinner, in which the posture and dress of the diners recalls the hasty flight of the Israelites into freedom, also serves as a thanksgiving to God for His having orchestrated this event on behalf of His chosen people.

The Old Testament provides us with many other examples of men and women giving thanks to God in response to His benevolence towards them. However, because there is no specific word for "thanksgiving" in the Hebrew language, in the early writings of the Old Testament such thanks are oftentimes expressed in the psalms, wherein the Israelites praise and glorify God for His goodness. For example, Psalm 48 states that "Great is the Lord and wholly to be praised...O God, we ponder your kindness within your temple. As your name, O God, so also your praise reaches to the ends of the earth." Similar words of thanksgiving may also be found in Psalms 66, 118, 124 and 135.

In some of the later writings of the Old Testament (such as the Books of Judith, Esther and Wisdom), after the Jewish people had come under the influence of the Hellenistic culture, we begin to see the term "thanksgiving" introduced. However, the term for giving thanks (eukharistein in Greek) is seen most often in the New Testament, especially in the writings of St. Paul, who uses this term over thirty times.

The word "eucharistia", from which we have derived "eucharist", was used by the early church soon after the Resurrection of Jesus to denote the sacramental rite in which bread and wine are transubstantiated into His Body and Blood. While a complete theological discourse upon the Eucharist is beyond the scope of this article, the celebration of this sacrament clearly includes thanksgiving to God for the salvation offered to us through His Son, Jesus.

However, for those of us who do not claim to be theologians, the important thing to note is that giving praise and thanks to God for His many blessings upon us is a natural part of our faith. We praise and honor God not because he is in need of our praise and honor, but because thanking God brings us into a deeper union with Him and, as an act of humility, reminds us of the fact that we humans are the created, not the Creator. In the Gospel of Luke, we read how Jesus had healed ten lepers, yet only one of them returned to render thanks (Lk 7:18). Jesus expressed concern over this situation, not because God the Father was in need of praise, but because of the lack of gratitude exhibited by the other nine men indicated that they did not have a prayerful relationship with God, and therefore, were not in sincere communion with Him.

Yet, to merely praise and honor God in an external manner is not sufficient for such acts which do not arise from one's heart cannot be considered true acts of thanksgiving, as they do not direct one's thoughts away from oneself toward God. Such religiosity without faith is ineffectual in the sight of God, Who knows the intention of our hearts regardless of our actions. In other words, giving thanks to God is not jut a polite thing to do (as one would compliment the host of a Thanksgiving Day dinner no matter how much over-cooked the turkey is!). In fact, for the mature Christian, thanksgiving to God is not so much an action as it is an attitude, brought about by the continual awareness that all of life is a gift from God. A person with such an understanding of life cannot help but be thankful to God in all that he or she says and does.

Soon, we Americans will once again gather around tables of food with family and friends to recall the tremendous blessings that God has freely bestowed upon us and our country. This is a beautiful tradition of which we are justly proud. However, the mature Christian knows that every day of our lives is a gift from God worthy of thanks, and that each passing day provides us with the opportunity to thank Him with grateful hearts which reflect His love within our world.

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