By Fr. Mark Perkins
Right around this time of year, we start to hear talk about “the war on Christmas” — but why does no one discuss “the war on Thanksgiving”? Folks get up in arms if the Starbucks barista wishes them a “Happy Holidays” instead of a “Merry Christmas,” but no one seems to bat an eye when “Thanksgiving” becomes “Feast Week” — when a day purportedly dedicated to gratitude is instead given over to unadulterated gluttony; when Thanksgiving Day itself becomes “Turkey Day,” and then “Turkey Day” is crowded out by “Black Friday” and “Small Business Saturday” and “Cyber Monday.” (Perhaps I should be more grateful that we have managed to tack on “Giving Tuesday” to the end of this gluttonous and avaricious string of days… it is a pittance of a penance, but a penance nonetheless.)
So let’s start a new culture war. Let’s combat the war on Thanksgiving! Let’s picket Black Friday sales with bullhorns and incendiary slogans. I want folks passive-aggressively correcting relatives who talk about “Turkey Day.” I want endless Fox News chyrons exposing the liberal agenda behind godless shows like… “the NFL on Fox.”
Okay, I admit that my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek just now. Still, it is truly remarkable how fully this holiday — dedicated to turning outside of ourselves in thankfulness — has instead become The High Feast of America’s True Religion: endless consumption and endless self-absorption.
In all seriousness, “putting the thanks back in Thanksgiving” seems like a more reasonable cultural battle than putting Christ back in Christmas. We should not be surprised that our corporate overlords at Amazon and the marketing agencies responsible for the state of advertising and television today fail to give honor to Jesus Christ. I am not entirely sure I want them paying lip service to Jesus in the first place. We should not expect non-Christians to honor Christ, because the only way to honor Christ in truth is to become a Christian. By contrast, a non-Christian can practice gratitude — only a Christian can celebrate Christmas rightly, but any culture can offer thanks… right?
Well, not exactly.
The word gratitude comes from gratis (free) and gratia (grace). We can only be grateful for gifts. You cannot be grateful for getting what you are owed, what is yours by right. And so true gratitude requires us to recognize that, as the Epistle for Thanksgiving Day says, “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). All good things come from God — and they come to us not because God owes us, as though we have put him in our debt through our hard work and virtuous living, but rather as gifts freely given. The first gift is our very existence, as that same Epistle suggests: “of his own will begat he us with the Word of truth” (James 1:18). That anything exists testifies to the goodness of our Creator. And so, while anyone can give thanks to an extent, true gratitude ultimately traces all good things back to their source — God himself. True gratitude gives thanks to God — and not some generic deity, but the Triune God of the Nicene Creed: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
When we understand that God is the source of all good things, we will hold our so-called “possessions” with an open hand. As the Gospel for Thanksgiving Day advises, we will “consider the lilies of the field” (see Matthew 6:25-34). If food and clothing are ultimately gifts from God, then we will not clutch them to our chests in anxious fear. Rather, we will hold them loosely and with gratitude.
So let us live as thankful people. Let us pray the General Thanksgiving for Morning and Evening Prayer, and let us do so with “stedfast thoughts and kindled affections” (BCP 594). Doing so will teach us to be thankful — not only “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” (BCP 19, 33).
And let us embrace the truest form of praise and thanksgiving — coming to the altar in the Mass to “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” (BCP 81). As it turns out, the best way to celebrate Thanksgiving as Christians is to embrace “Feast Week,” rightly understood. All of the fellowship and food we will enjoy on Thanksgiving pales in comparison to the Eucharistic feast — or better yet, everything good in our feasting flows from The Feast, our great heavenly banquet.
This, of course, is why we describe Holy Communion as the Eucharist — the giving of thanks. In the Eucharist, we receive the great gift of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and the whole Mass from start to finish teaches us to worship God in the Eucharist and to give him thanks through and for it. The Collect for Purity, the Summary of the Law, the Kyrie Elieson, the Confession and General Absolution, the Prayer of Humble Access, the post-communion Prayer of Thanksgiving — all of these teach us that everything we receive is a gift, not owed but freely given. This Thanksgiving and always, let us learn from our liturgy to see every good thing as an unmerited gift to be met with boundless thanks.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.