The 3 elements that make up Thanksgiving
As many of you know, Lise and I have lived in the US for many years and as Canadians living in the US we were often asked, "Do Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving like Americans?"
The answer to that is yes, we do. As a matter of fact, both countries shared an early pattern where it was a general day of thanksgiving and festival for the harvest and the home. In the US, this tradition was perpetuated for a particular day (4th Thursday in November) by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and has been celebrated as such since then.
In Canada, Thanksgiving has developed differently:
- In the 18thcentury it was celebrated in December in the province of Quebec and in June by the rest of Canada as thanksgiving for the end of the war between France and Britain.
- In 1918 Thanksgiving was proclaimed to be celebrated on the Monday of Armistice week in order to give thanks for the ending of WWI.
- Since 1957 however, this holiday has been set for the 2ndMonday in October for all of Canada and remains so until this day. (Harvest is sooner in the North and so is the celebration.)
Whatever the reasons, historical background or the day chosen to celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday, both Canada and the US have much to be thankful for and share common blessings of peace and prosperity that serve as a basis for this holiday. Of course as Christians, we do not relegate our offering of thanks to a yearly feast. As Christians we give thanks on a regular basis and regardless of our cultural background we share a common experience when it comes to the giving of thanks. So I want to talk to you about this common experience by sharing with you the 3 elements that make up Thanksgiving - the 3 things that all of us do (must do) in order to give thanks no matter where we come from, whatever our traditions.
Contemplation is the wellspring of thanksgiving. Without contemplation there can be no proper, satisfying, meaningful thanksgiving. By contemplation I don't necessarily mean the art of meditation for a better mind and body. Contemplation is the focusing in on these things that are legitimate blessings in your life - and then savoring these like you do a Lifesaver candy:
Let the flavor flow, wait until it's completely dissolved so that even when the candy is gone, you can still taste it. In Philippians 4:8 Paul tells us the type of things that we should "savor" in our minds in order to be at peace with ourselves and God.
We are disposed to focus on the negative, the failures, the annoying, the worrisome and sometimes this is necessary - however, when we choose to review our blessing in the light of what Paul teaches in Philippians 4 (we should think of what is true, pure, good, worthy of praise) in our own lives, not just in the world in general, we've taken the first step in achieving true thanksgiving and have set the stage for the next step in this process:
Contemplation of life's blessings, of what's good in our lives leads us naturally to celebration. We want to rejoice over the good things in our lives. The celebration of perceived blessings is expressed most naturally in gratitude and praise. As a matter of fact, the words used in the Old Testament and New Testament translated thanksgiving meant more than just the saying of "thank you".
In the Old Testament, the word meant to extend hands, to actually worship God and express gratitude (as opposed to supplication or lamentation). In the New Testament the word used, Eucharisto, meant to give thanks in worship. Interesting to note that the Roman Catholic church uses the word Eucharist in referring to the Lord's supper signifying that it is not only an act of remembrance but also thanksgiving as well.
And so for thanksgiving to be such, there needs to be a sense of gratitude and that gratitude finds its most natural expression in praise. It's not enough to just feel all warm and safe and satisfied because we realize that we are blessed (just feeling full after the turkey dinner doesn't equal thanksgiving). True thanksgiving doesn't happen until there is a celebration of that gratitude in praise. The Psalmist captured that spirit in Psalm 148:
1Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
Praise Him in the heights!
2Praise Him, all His angels;
Praise Him, all His hosts!
3Praise Him, sun and moon;
Praise Him, all stars of light!
4Praise Him, highest heavens,
And the waters that are above the heavens!
5Let them praise the name of the Lord,
For He commanded and they were created.
6He has also established them forever and ever;
He has made a decree which will not pass away.
Now there is a man in full celebration mode, praising God for the things he sees with his eyes.
I believe that one of the elements missing in the lives of unbelievers is that they do not experience praising God and are dissatisfied because whatever they do praise is so insignificant and temporal that it gives them no satisfaction (movie stars, poets, architecture, etc.). The world makes no sense if we cannot go to God for comfort and expect justice one day for all the inequities of life - but it is also as senseless and anxiety producing if we have no one to credit for the blessings that we have not earned, have no control over or power to create or stop. Why do the rich and famous kill themselves? Many times it's because they choose to "party" because of their blessings rather than celebrate through praise and thanksgiving to God.
One other element that makes thanksgiving a universal experience is contentment. Contemplation -> Celebration -> Contentment
The celebration of our blessings in praise and gratitude is a major factor in producing contentment in our hearts. Contentment is an interesting word in the New Testament.
It literally meant "to raise a barrier or to ward off an enemy." The word was used to suggest satisfaction, having enough, contentment. Perhaps the idea was that we establish a line or circle which serves the dual purpose of being a limit for our desire and a protection or barrier against greed and pride and despair. Having a line tells us when we've had enough. The body has one for appetite - this is a spiritual and emotional limit.
Paul uses the word in this way
- Philippians 4:11-13 - He says he has learned to be content. The line and barrier for Paul was the Lord who provided all the necessities and protected against the enemy.
- The Hebrew writer echoes this idea in Hebrews 13:5.
The warning is against the sin of greed for money but the line that circles and protects against this is the knowledge that God will always provide, thus establishing the possibility for contentment.
Greed = No Line (having no limit)
The way to draw that line, raise that barrier against greed and dissatisfaction, is to contemplate the good that is in our lives and acknowledge God as the source and provider for all that we need through praise and gratitude. There is a direct (if unseen) relationship between the amount of praise and thanksgiving we express and the degree of contentment we experience.
Paul said that he had learned to be content and I am persuaded that this education was provided for the most part as he persevered in praise and thanksgiving while suffering persecution, rejection and imprisonment for the cause of Christ.
Both Canada and the US give thanks at this time of year and well they should - the line, the circle that we have established to measure our contentment is firmly secure. In North America despite the recent economic troubles, we are still:
- The most wealthy
- The most comfortable
- The most secure
We give thanks because we have everything and everything is what we want. But as Christians let's not only rejoice over the momentary prosperity of our respective nations (a brief glance at history teaches us that nations rise and fall very quickly). No, as Christians let us focus our thanksgiving on this day and every other day on our Lord Jesus Christ:
- Let us contemplate His word and His promise never to abandon us, and one day return to bring us to heaven with Him one day.
- Let us celebrate through praise and thankful prayer, the many physical and spiritual blessings that He provides each day for our joy.
- Let us make Jesus the line and circle around our lives so that having and knowing the Lord becomes the very substance of what it means to be satisfied and filled (regardless of what we possess materially).
In French Canada the songbook used in the church is called "Célébron Dieu." Translated this means "Let us celebrate God." If I were running to be Prime Minister and won the election, one of the first things that I would do is change the "generic" name of this holiday from Thanksgiving Day to Let us Celebrate God Day.
Of course this is not as catchy a title, a little bulky on greeting cards, probably violating somebody's rights somewhere. But this name would be more accurate because everything good we receive comes from God and is worth celebrating.
If I were Prime Minister, God in Christ would receive the glory, the thanks, the respect, only He deserves for all the blessings we enjoy in this and every nation. But, alas, I'm not the Prime Minister, you are not Parliament, and we cannot legislate such a thing - so let us in our own lives celebrate God each day for all He has given us in Christ.
Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving.