The Eve of Thanksgiving
(Deut 8 / Ps 65:1-8 / James 1:17-27 / Matt 6:25-33)
Collect for Thanksgiving Day
Most merciful Father, we humbly thank you for all your gifts so freely bestowed upon us: for life and health and safety, for strength to work and leisure to rest, for all that is beautiful in creation and in human life; but above all we thank you for our spiritual mercies in Christ Jesus our Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I WANT TO WAX SEMANTIC — and perhaps pedantic — for a moment by making a distinction between a holy day and a holiday. A holy day is a sacred observance; its focus is Godward. It is time spent in worship: fasting or feasting, praying or serving, lamenting or rejoicing, confessing or praising. A holiday is a secular observance; its focus in manward. It is time spent mainly not working: football and parades, fireworks and barbecues, family and friends. A holiday is the best approximation a secular culture has of a holy day: a flattened out holy day, a holy day without anything or anyone holy in it. Now, I have nothing against holidays. Who doesn’t like a day off? And, some holidays at least commemorate culturally significant events and persons, mainly political ones: Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Presidents’ Day and the like. Sometimes a holy day and a holiday coincide, like at Christmas. The culture celebrates Christmas — a holiday of family and feasting and gift-giving and festivity — while the church celebrates the Feast of the Nativity — a holy day that calls us to bow in wonder before God incarnate as a baby in Bethlehem. Most Western Christians, I suspect, celebrate both the holiday and the holy day on 25 December with scarcely a thought of the differences between the two. The same may be true of Thanksgiving. Holy day, holiday, or both?
Though this may surprise you, Thanksgiving is not a holy day on the church calendar; it is a holiday on the national calendar. The Book of Common Prayer recognizes it as a national holiday and even honors its historical religious roots by providing propers for the day: a collect and lectionary readings. Though it had been observed earlier, Thanksgiving formally became a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War, in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln established a day “to commend to [God’s] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife.” Even here, there is more a sense of penitence than of thanksgiving, more fasting than feasting.
But, the day did start as a time of thanksgiving nearly two and a half centuries before: Plymouth Colony, 1621, with a few surviving colonists and several members of the Wampanoag tribe. Against all odds, and with the help of the Wampanoag, fifty-three colonists had survived the previous winter, had planted crops, and now had reaped a harvest sufficient to last through the coming winter months. Thanksgiving seemed a good and right thing to do, and so this group gathered sometime between September and November — the date is uncertain — for three days of feasting and celebration. It was a harvest festival.
And that brings me back to holy days and holidays. Historically, I understand why Thanksgiving is not a holy day in the English Prayer Book tradition. It does not commemorate a biblical event or honor a saint. Nor is it indigenous to England: to the colonies, yes, but to England proper, no. So, liturgically it is relegated to a national holiday, both for the United States and, separately, for Canada. Historically and liturgically, I understand; that may well be correct. But, I’m not so convinced that it is biblically correct or theologically sound. Maybe, just maybe, Thanksgiving should be a holy day, and not just a holiday. There is ample biblical precedent in Israel.
Deuteronomy finds the Hebrews poised to enter the promised land, listening to Moses’ farewell address and review of the Law. He calls the people to remember.
Deuteronomy 8:7–20 (ESV): 7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9 a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 10 And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.
11 “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 19 And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.
There is, in every culture, a tendency to secularize the culture’s history and accomplishments. You need look no further than our national monuments to see this trend at work in America: political memorials to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln; military monuments to every war we have fought and to the soldiers who fought them; economic monuments to capitalism and commerce, two of which fell on 9/11. Every one of these monuments say, “Look at us. Look at what we have accomplished — often at great cost. Look at what we have achieved with our power and might and intellect and will.” And we have holidays that proclaim in time what the monuments proclaim in stone and steel: holidays, but not holy days. And that is precisely what God warned Israel against as they entered a good land with bountiful food, houses, pasture, produce. How easy it would be to forget that all these blessings are just that — blessings from God and not the accomplishments of the people. How easy it would be to build monuments — and idols.
17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day (Deut 8:17-18).
How is Israel to avoid this tendency to self-congratulation, this temptation to build monuments to human accomplishment? By keeping holy day: not holiday, but holy day. Moses tells them how — instructions from God himself — as he continues his farewell address.
Deuteronomy 26:1–11 (ESV): 26 “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. 3 And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.’ 4 Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God.
5 “And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. 7 Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. 9 And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God. 11 And you shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.
At the time of harvest — even before he eats of the harvest — every man of Israel is to take a basketful of the firstfruits of his land to the tabernacle and later to the temple. He is to present it to the priest to offer it to the Lord. And in what is one of the most poignant rituals in all Scripture he is to proclaim his story, the story of how God took him from nothing and brought him into this good land which has produced this good crop. And after recounting — in ritualized form — the story of his people; the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the story of Egypt and slavery and deliverance; the story of conquest and now prosperity; the story of the faithfulness of God to the covenant; then he is to say, “And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.” He is to worship. He is to feast, sharing his bounty with his family and friends, with the Levites — the servants of God — and with the sojourners. He is to celebrate the harvest — a day of Thanksgiving — as a holy day.
Can’t you see all of that in our great Thanksgiving hymn, Come Ye Thankful People Come, written by Henry Alford, a good Anglican churchman?
Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide
For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come;
Raise the song of harvest home!
For Israel, the harvest was to be a holy day. For Christians, Thanksgiving should be a holy day and not just a holiday.
On 9 May this year, the Sunday before the Ascension, we observed a holy day of the church: Rogation Sunday. It is a day to process through the fields and to ask God’s blessing on the crops. We include these petitions either in the Great Litany or in the Prayers of the People:
That it may please thee to grant favorable weather, temperate rain, and fruitful seasons, that there may be food and drink for all thy creatures,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please thee to bless the lands and waters, and all who work upon them to bring forth food and all things needful for thy people,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please thee to look with favor upon all who care for the earth, the water, and the air, that the riches of thy creation may abound from age to age,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
If planting started with a holy day of prayer to God for his blessing, it seems good and right that the harvest should end with a holy day of thanksgiving to God for his blessings: prayers offered and prayers answered.
So, while our culture celebrates the holiday of Thanksgiving tomorrow — and, of course, we will join with them in that — let’s also keep holy day tomorrow, presenting our feast to God as firstfruits of praise and Thanksgiving, recounting the story of God’s blessing and all his wonderful deeds. Amen.