Today is Thanksgiving which for many of us probably conjures up images of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and watching the Dallas Cowboys on television. Others may just imagine wild turkeys or cornucopias. For others still, the picture may be of Squanto, the Indians, and the Pilgrims all joining together at the table for a feast. Differences laid aside, humanity shared in this moment. And what a fitting and eerily similar portrait we find when we turn to the gospels. Jesus and his disciples gathered together at a table for a meal. A meal where differences were also put aside, where humanity was allowed to be shared. And Jesus poured the wine and broke the bread. Then he said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” The Eucharist – a time of remembering. Thanksgiving – a day to recount our blessings. Maybe they aren’t that different. Maybe built right into the civil religion in America is a holiday that can act as the Eucharist for us. A day set aside for remembering. For reflecting. For contemplating.
This idea of remembering seems to run rampant in the letters of Paul. Following his customary ‘Grace and Peace’ intro, he often wrote of being thankful. To the church at Rome he wrote, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God is my witness that without ceasing, I remember you always in my prayers.” To the church at Ephesus: “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” To the church at Philippi: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” To the church at Colossae: “In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints.” And to the church at Thessalonica: “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
For some reason, I’m surprised at Paul’s unceasing thankfulness. I mean, he had so much to not be thankful for: afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger to name a few the apostle himself noted. But you get the idea from his writings that he actually, somehow, through all these trials, was still thankful deep within his heart. And central to Paul’s thankfulness was remembering. Paul was a contemplative. He thought about life, about the churches he planted, about God, and about how lucky and blessed he was because of the new humanity that Christ brought to earth.
One of my roommates utilizes the adage, “Out of sight, out of mind,” usually in reference to his blanket covering his clothes in the corner of his room or the magazine he used to cover his orange soda spill. But when it comes to thankfulness, when it comes to entering into a state of thanksgiving, as soon as something leaves our mind, as soon as something leaves our memory, it is no longer a gift or a blessing. It is an entitlement. No longer are we at the mercy of God and God’s blessings. We are entitled to the blessings of God. When we forget about what it was like to be on the outside, we can no longer be thankful for being on the inside. When we forget about how lucky we are to have an abundance of food in the caf, we complain because we feel we are entitled to better food and we miss out on the gift sitting right before us. Or maybe it’s not a thing we forget about, but a person. We forget of the loved one who passed away, and we are bitter because it was unfair that they were taken from us. Or we’re in a relationship, and you’re getting past the initial honeymoon stage where everything was good all the time, and the other person is annoying, and you begin to notice all their quirks, and all the things you don’t like. But if you could only remember back to what your life was like before they entered the picture, you would be thankful that they were a part of your life because you are no longer who you once were on account of them. But we must remember. We must reflect. We must contemplate. The Christian mystics informally followed the mantra: Action without reflection is meaningless action. Maybe life without reflection only gives birth to life without thanksgiving. Without joy, without shalom.
Josef Pieper, a Catholic philosopher, once remarked, while addressing the topic that possessions can bring about happiness, that happiness is indeed to be had from things, but only things that are contemplated or appreciated. I would have to agree.
Thanksgiving. An American holiday. A time to give thanks. But Thanksgiving is much, much more than that. Thanksgiving is a state of being, a state of perpetual gratefulness which only comes through reflection and appreciation. May this Thanksgiving be about the latter rather than the former. May this Thanksgiving be a time of stopping and reflecting upon all the graces and mercies bestowed upon us by God.