Thanksgiving is not part of the liturgical calendar, but giving thanks is certainly part of Christianity, and so I think it is not unfitting to put up some thoughts concerning it here (Note for my American friends: it is Thanksgiving in Canada). There are any number of texts I could have chosen for this, whether Biblical or extra-Biblical; I have chosen two, one that helps me convey my discomfort with Thanksgiving as a holiday, and one that I find challenging lest I should let myself off too easily.
The first is a familiar enough passage from Luke 18, which I quote from Douay-Rheims because I am a quirky medievalist and because I like underdog translations:
9 And to some who trusted in themselves as just, and despised others, he spoke also this parable: 10 Two men went up into the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. 11 The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. 12 I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess. 13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: O god, be merciful to me a sinner.14 I say to you, this man went down into his house justified rather that the other: because every one that exalteth himself, shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted.
Only one of these men give thanks to God, and the reason I am often skeptical about the amount of thanks actually given at Thanksgiving is because much of what I hear sounds a lot like the thanks of the Pharisee here. We express our thanks, yes, but it is a mediocre comfortable middle-class kind of thanks, designed more to remind ourselves that we are not like those (insert pejorative word) over there. We are not radically thankful in the most literal sense, by which I mean thankful not only for the very root of our physical being but also for the root of Jesse that is the root of our salvation.
But giving hypocritical thanks is one thing, and grumbling is another, though it is equally serious. Over and over again, Christians conceive of themselves as the people of Israel, wandering through the desert and being faced with the temptation of hardening their hearts. We sing of this when we sing Psalm 95, the Venite, as part of our liturgical worship. The book of Hebrews cautions us not to let our hearts grow hard as did those of God’s people in the desert. The tie-in to thankfulness here is that by and large what hardens the hearts of the Israelites in the desert is grumbling, against God, against God’s ordering of the world, and against the leaders he has chosen. From firsthand experience, I can say that those like me who are very uncomfortable with the “Pharisee’s prayer” kind of thanks often fall heedlessly into a state of grumbling which, as the aforementioned passages show, is a serious spiritual malady indeed.
But what can we do? How can we open our eyes to God’s miracles when we are the sort of people who, like C. S. Lewis’s Orual, insist on grumbling against a world we refuse to really see? The full answer is of course far more complex than I am going to deal with here, but I would like to share something that I think helps me as I practice it.
When praying liturgy, everyone has a particular phrase that catches in their throat – something that convicts them, something that seems unfair to them, or something that seems untrue – it is exactly what we might expect when sinners encounter the offense of the Gospel, and it is I imagine only Saints in their perfection who can pray thus without choking on a word or two; they no longer need such purgatorial effects in their liturgy. I suppose for many modern people the problem comes when sin is mentioned, or Christian exclusivity, or historical claims of the Gospels etc. These I am fine with, but what always catches for me is the phrase in the Book of Common Prayer’s “General Thanksgiving”: “We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life.” It is hard to say this when one suffers from ongoing depression and OCD. It is even harder to say this when one has watched all kinds of tragedies – from depression, to fatal car accidents, to suicide – ravage the people you love. And when I think that mine is the experienced pain of only one person out of many who now live and have lived, it becomes impossible to say this – or nearly impossible, but for one thing.
This one thing begins with another word of Thanksgiving. The scripture is read, and the reader concludes: “This is the word of the Lord” – we respond with, “Thanks be to God.” The thanks here is thanks for the word of God in which the Word of God, Christ, is hidden. And in this word, we are taught to have faith in God and enact thanks even when we discover that our creation, preservation, and blessing might lead us and those we love to a cross. We can give thanks, not because the crosses we see are beautiful, but because the resurrection we expect afterward is good, even if we don’t always see it now. For some, faith the size of a mustard seed is sufficient to move mountains; thank God it is also sufficient to move the hardness of grumbling hearts.