Thanksgiving Day


The fourth thursday of November is celebrated as Thanksgiving Day in the United States of America). Most people, I think it is safe to say, tend to think of the day largely in terms of football, family, and food (traditionally with an emphasis on foods native to the Americas), and perhaps with a nod to the hoary mythology of the Pilgrims and the ‘first Thanksgiving’. Even the least religious may take a moment to give thanks for the good in their lives, and the altruistically minded often help to provide a Thanksgiving meal for those who cannot provide for themselves.

Thanksgiving Day is probably not thought of by many in the modern US as a harvest festival, exactly – most of us in an industrial, or post-industrial, society are all too unaware of the rhythms of nature, and the end of November is past harvest-time in most of the US – but the Episcopal Church certainly celebrates it as such. From the very first Book of Common Prayer (Proposed), 1786, American Prayer Books have contained ‘A Form of Prayer and Thanksgiving to Almighty God, for the Fruits of the Earth and all the other Blessings of His Merciful Providence’.* Certainly it is most appropriate to give thanks for God’s providence, and appropriate to do so with a liturgy whose very name is ‘Thanksgiving’ (Eucharist).

Falling as it does either just before the Last Sunday after Pentecost or between it and the First Sunday of Advent, however, the harvest that Thanksgiving celebrates is not only that of grain but also that of souls – for this period of the Church’s year stretching from All Saints’ Day through the First Sunday of Advent is very clearly focused on the Parousia, the ‘Second Coming’ of Christ and the Last Things.

The Advent nature of Thanksgiving can be seen, first of all, in the fact that the Epistle appointed for Thanksgiving Day in Year C (this year) of the Revised Common Lectionary is also a classic Epistle for the III. [Tridentine] or IV. [medieval and ‘classic’ bcp] Sunday of Advent (it is now read on the III. Sunday of Advent, Year C, in the Roman, bcp1979, and rcl systems) – Pp 4.4–9:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Another similar overlap occurs between Evening Prayer of Thanksgiving Day and the Mass of the III. Sunday of Advent in Year B (rcl), when 1Th 5.12–24 – with similar themes – is appointed. This passage reads in part:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. 

Finally, the connection between the two harvests is made abundantly clear in a well-known hymn:

Come, ye thankful people, come,
raise the song of harvest-home:
all is safely gathered in,
ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide
for our wants to be supplied;
come to God’s own temple, come,
raise the song of harvest-home.

All the world is God’s own field,
fruit unto his praise to yield;
wheat and tares together sown,
unto joy or sorrow grown:
first the blade, and then the ear,
then the full corn shall appear:
grant, O harvest Lord, that we
wholesome grain and pure may be.

For the Lord our God shall come,
and shall take his harvest home;
from his field shall in that day
all offenses purge away;
give his angels charge at last
in the fire the tares to cast,
but the fruitful ears to store
in his garner evermore.

Even so, Lord, quickly come
to thy final harvest-home;
gather thou thy people in,
free from sorrow, free from sin;
there, for ever purified,
in thy presence to abide;
come, with all thine angels, come,
raise the glorious harvest-home.

And what do these connections between Thanksgiving and Advent, the earthly and spiritual harvest, tell us? Clearly that there is some continuity between rejoicing, giving thanks, trusting in God’s providence, cultivating the virtues (the Epistle for Year A, 2Co 9.6–15, speaks of the ‘harvest of your righteousness’, a phrase repeated in the Epistle to the Philippians with the prayer that ‘on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ’), being prepared, and the Lord’s coming. This, the Scriptures certainly tell us, is true in terms of the Parousia; the original context of the Apostle’s writing seems to have been a fervent expectation of the Lord’s imminent return in glory for the consummation and completion of all things [cf. Pp 1.6: ‘I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’].

However, the Christian tradition speaks of the Lord’s coming not only in glory, but also in grace, repeatedly, to the individual soul as well as to the gathered Church, and the Advent season is as much about this advent as any other. For ‘the Lord is near’ is a statement that is always, in every age and every moment, true, for those who seek His presence. The Apostle himself, whom St Bernard of Clairvaux called ‘the greatest of contemplatives’, and who was a learned and devout Jew, must have understood this, for the Psalms and even the Torah are full of precisely this insight, often indeed couched in agrarian symbology.

In this connection we may mention the Old Testament Lesson for the Thanksgiving Day Mass in Year C [Dt 26.1–11], which speaks of coming into ‘the land’, possessing it, and settling in it (a related passage from Dt 8 is read in Year A). ‘The land’, in the contemplative tradition, is the place of communion with the divine, which is promised to anyone who will seek it. Our Lord tells us in the Gospel for this same day, ‘do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you’ [Jn 6.27], which reminds us of His similar promise of ‘living water’ to the woman at the well [Jn 4.10–11].

This water is another common metaphor for the presence of God, one which also appears throughout the Thanksgiving propers: Ps 65 (Mass, Year A) acclaims that God ‘visit[s] the earth and water[s] it abundantly...’, and Jl 2.21–27 (Year B) is another promise of rain and abundance. The image continues throughout Advent, for example in Ps 72, the Psalm at Mass on the II. Sunday of Advent in Year A (also, tellingly, appointed for the Votive Mass for Social Justice), which is also the basis of Hymn 616, ‘Hail to the Lord’s anointed’ –

He shall come down like showers
     upon the fruitful earth,
and love, joy, hope, like flowers,
     spring in his path to birth:
before him on the mountains
     shall peace, the herald, go;
and righteousness in fountains
     from hill to valley flow.
(st. 3)

– which finally connects the coming of the Lord in the flesh, in glory, and in grace to the coming of the Kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness.† There is not – indeed must not – be any conflict here, for Christ is God’s Justice, and where justice is, Christ is to be found (cf. the Maundy Thursday anthem Ubi caritas, ‘Where charity and love are, God is there’, and Ps 89.14, ‘righteousness and justice are the foundations of your throne’ – all true in terms of one’s heart, as well as in the world). The coming of the Kingdom in our hearts via the cultivation of virtue cannot be separated from its coming in our societies via the cultivation of justice (including the responsible cultivation of the earth), nor can its painful, slow, incremental ripening be separated from its final, swift, and decisive harvest. All of these are but aspects of one eternal reality, which in our finitude we can only apprehend in small glimpses.

*  Thanksgiving holidays were proclaimed and celebrated variously in individual American colonies and then states up until the time of President Lincoln, who in 1863 declared the last Thursday of November as a national holiday – though because of the ongoing Civil War, this was not actually observed uniformly until the 1870s. In 1941 President (Franklin) Roosevelt changed the date to the fourth, rather than last, Thursday of November. The Prayer Books of 1789, 1892, and 1928 all appointed the Thanksgiving service for the first Thursday of November, ‘or such other day as shall be appointed by the Civil Authority’. bcp1979 does not actually say when Thanksgiving Day – now a Major Feast, in the category of ‘National Days’ – is to be observed.

†  One more connection, more obscure but worth tracing, may be found in this Thanksgiving for the Harvest (bcp1979 840, previously part of the Thanksgiving Day service mentioned in the foregoing note):

Most gracious God, by whose knowledge the depths are broken up and the clouds drop down the dew: We yield thee hearty thanks and praise for the return of seedtime and harvest, for the increase of the ground and the gathering in of its fruits, and for all the other blessings of thy merciful providence bestowed upon this nation and people. And, we beseech thee, give us a just sense of these great mercies, such as may appear in our lives by a humble, holy, and obedient walking before thee all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord...

The first clause of this prayer is taken directly from Pr 3.20, but the phrases ‘drop down the dew’ and ‘the depths are broken up’ echo Is 45.8  –

Drop down dew, heavens, from above,
and let the clouds pour down the just.
Let the earth open and bring forth a savior.

– which is sung throughout the liturgies of Advent in the Roman Rite (it is the Versicle at the Daily Office, the Introit for the IV. Sunday of Advent and the Saturday Mass of the bvm in Advent (The ‘Rorate’ Mass, after its first word in Latin), and the refrain of the ‘Advent Prose’, a sort of hymn often used in the season though without a specific assignment to any liturgy). In the Vulgate Bible, from which the above is translated, and thus in the liturgies of Advent, ‘the just’ and ‘a savior’ are obviously intended to refer to Christ, whose earthly name, Yeshua (which probably means ‘God saves’), is a form of this very word (in a further expansion of the image, we can read ‘heavens’ and ‘earth’ as the union of the divine and human in Christ, and I am sure that someone will have read ‘Let the earth open’ as referring to Our Lord’s physical birth from the Blessed Virgin). Most other translations use abstract nouns – ‘justice’ (or ‘righteousness’) and ‘salvation’ (though translator Robert Alter objects to the use of words like ‘salvation’ as being restricted in use and meaning to the sphere of Christian theology, and suggests that ‘rescue’ is a better translation of yesha‘). My point is that, from the Christian point of view, God’s justice / righteousness and salvation / rescue are embodied and experienced most fully in Christ, and Christ is most fully embodied and experienced where justice, righteousness, and deliverance are to be found. It is probably a curse of the rich and privileged (among whom I must count myself), who do not suffer much, if any, injustice or physical need but rather are likely guilty in some way of perpetrating them upon others, to have difficulty appreciating and internalizing the essential continuity between the concrete / abstract, social / individual, and physical / spiritual realms.