Thursday, November 25, 2021

The God of Thanksgiving - By Jonathan Barth

 Thanksgiving is among the greatest of our national holidays, and there is a real case to be made that it is the greatest of our national holidays.  Tragically, however, Americans in the general have lost a real understanding of why we celebrate Thanksgiving.

When the Pilgrims organized that famous feast in 1621 — four hundred years ago — the calling of a special day of thanksgiving was by no means an exceptional or novel idea.  Days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving were all common long before 1621, especially in Protestant England.  Such days were usually proclaimed in response to an exceptional peril or tragedy or, more happily, an extraordinary blessing.  The Pilgrims had both: the year before, they had endured a wretched ten-week voyage across the Atlantic, followed by a harsh New England winter in which 58 of the original 102 colonists died.  And yet, a bountiful harvest followed, with the invaluable aid of some of the local Indians, including a man, Squanto, who happened to know English!  Moreover, the Pilgrims lived in a land where they enjoyed the freedom to worship God precisely as they saw fit.  They hosted a dinner — attended by 53 Pilgrims and 90 American Indians — and gave thanks.

More than a century and a half later, President George Washington, in 1789, proclaimed the November 26 of that year to be "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God."  In the midst of the Civil War, in 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in order to acknowledge "the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy."  Lincoln urged Americans to thank the one true God for their many "deliverances and blessings," while also offering up "humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience."

It is safe to say that in recent decades, Thanksgiving as a holiday has been increasingly sidelined.  The holiday is clearly no longer sacrosanct as it once was.  But why?

There are many reasons. For one, the broader shift in our culture away from the belief in God — especially the belief in an active and intervening God — is clearly responsible for undermining the importance that most people assign the holiday.  More on that in a moment.

Thanksgiving is also sandwiched between two thoroughly commercialized holidays: Halloween and Christmas.  America's obsession with Halloween has grown in recent years, and the Christmas shopping season has continued its gradual encroachment into November, with stores now open even on Thanksgiving Day itself.  Three cheers for capitalism!

Nevertheless, for a significant subset of Americans, the holiday and tradition of Thanksgiving endures in a meaningful way.

For one, the holiday of Thanksgiving reaches deep into the soul of this nation — it taps into a history and tradition that dates long before even 1776.

It's also a time for families — including, importantly, extended families — to commune and break bread together.  Thanksgiving is quintessentially family-oriented, and most Americans understand — even if at only a subconscious level — that the family unit is the bedrock institution of human civilization.  Holidays that involve families are vital, especially in the age in which we live, where the family, as an institution, is crumbling and severely impaired.  Now, more than ever, we need these regular family get-togethers.

But ultimately, that is not the meaning of Thanksgiving.  Fundamentally, Thanksgiving speaks to something far more transcendent.  It speaks to our thankfulness.

On this holiday, we say we are thankful.  That is all well and good, but it raises a couple of questions.

First, and most obviously, what are you thankful for?  There's a litany of things: employment, good health, family, food, shelter, and so on.

But your expression of thankfulness raises a second question.  To whom are you thankful?  Who, exactly, is the object of your thanks?

For those who believe in God — for those who believe in the existence, reality, and power of a sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent Creator — for such people, the answer is obvious.  But for those who don't believe in such a God — for those who reject the idea of divine Providence — there is, despite any protestations to the contrary, a certain vanity and meaninglessness behind any giving of thanks on Thanksgiving Day.  Whom are you thanking?  Are you thanking Fate, or Chance or Fortune?  Are you thanking yourself for possessing the talent to achieve things?  Whom are you thanking?

Thanksgiving, historically, is a day set aside for people to express their gratitude and humility before a sovereign, holy, and all-powerful God.

And Thanksgiving is most meaningful when the giver of thanks understands that he is not entitled to anything.  That even when times are difficult — even when tragedy comes — we still have many things for which to be thankful, because, in and of ourselves, we have no claim to anything.  If nothing else, the mere fact that we are breathing — that we are alive — is sufficient to offer thanks to the Creator who breathes life into man.

Think of the Pilgrims and all that they endured in the previous winter.  And yet, they offered sincere thanks.

This strikes the postmodern, twenty-first century American ear as strange.  To be thankful after all that?

Not that it was easy for the Pilgrims, either. It wasn't natural for them to have a spirit of thankfulness.  Contentment and gratitude contradict human nature.  What — to be thankful, whatever the circumstance?


You are not entitled to anything.  Any good that you have is a blessing from God.  You brought nothing into this world, and you'll bring nothing out of it.  Do you have food and clothing?  Do you have a roof over your head?  Then you have every reason to thank and to praise the God who gave you those things — and in fact, you are obligated to do so.

So many people believe that God or the government or society owes them something.  In reality, you owe God.  You owe God your thanks and praise for the many blessings you've received, and you owe God your repentance for the many wrongs you've committed.

That is the meaning of Thanksgiving.  Anything less than that, and the holiday is vain and hollow.

Now, more than at any time in our nation's history, we need to approach Thanksgiving with hearts of sincerity, humility, repentance, and gratitude.