Thanksgiving Day. Known for family, football, turkey, dressing, gravy, cranberry sauce, hot rolls, pumpkin pie, etc. Many of us have those types of memories surrounding Thanksgiving Day. A lot of tradition surrounds that holiday. Probably most of them are good and worth bringing to mind. If I were to ask you to recall a great Thanksgiving what would come to your mind?
Probably most of us would not think a setting in Palestine had anything to do with Thanksgiving. They don’t have football, turkey and dressing, or many of the items associated with our Thanksgiving. But, I want to take you back to what may have been the greatest thanksgiving.
The setting is the Jewish national observance of Passover being observed by the itinerant Rabbi, Jesus from Nazareth, along with His closest and most loyal followers. They are in a room sharing food that has been especially prepared according to strict ritualistic regulations that symbolize events resulting in the Exodus. As good Hebrews they would have observed this ritual dinner many times before. It was so familiar they probably could have observed this dinner in their sleep. But, then it happens!
In the midst of this customary meal, Jesus puts an entirely new twist on it. In fact, He does a very ego-centric thing, if, He is not the Messiah. He makes this meal all about Him. He turns the focus from thinking about the Passover lamb that had been sacrificed to save the Hebrews from the angel of death to His broken body and shed blood. Somehow, He is identifying Himself as the sacrificial Passover lamb offered to save Yahweh’s people. What an amazing event! But, you may be wondering what this has to do with Thanksgiving. There is nothing very thanksgivingish (I know this is not really a word.) about this meal.
Most of us don’t pay too much attention to something that Jesus does in the process of giving us this new ritual. We know He breaks the bread and takes the cup and blesses them, but He also gives thanks. There it is; the great thanksgiving. The Greek word for thanksgiving is “eucharist.” This is why in many Christian traditions the act of Holy Communion is called the Holy Eucharist. Somehow earlier Christians in trying to give a name to this ritual decided that thanksgiving was a central part of the ritual so much so that they named the ritual, “thanksgiving.”
Did you ever wonder what Jesus gave thanks for? We are not told how He blessed the bread and wine, nor what He said to the Father in thanksgiving. In a few hours, He would face the most horrific death in history. He would take upon Himself the weight of the evil of all the world for all time. He would soon be in such agony as to sweat drops of blood. There is evidence that at this meal He is beginning to feel this weight and yet He gives thanks.
Do you think He was just saying grace and thanking God for the bread and wine? Maybe, but somehow I think there was something more to this prayer of thanksgiving. Maybe He was thanking the Father for His blessed presence in His life. Maybe He was thanking the Father for the opportunity to be a part of the plan of salvation. Maybe He was thanking Him for the strength to be broken and shed His blood for all of us. Maybe He was thanking the Father for a group of followers to whom He could pass on the mysteries of Yahweh’s plan of salvation. I’m not sure what He gave thanks for, but I do know His thanksgiving wasn’t an empty ritual because in a few hours He would lay down His life for the Father He was thanking.
There was no football, turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie or other traditional Thanksgiving accompaniments, there was only a loaf of bread and a cup of wine, a few words from Jesus about what these two elements symbolized, a command to do this to remember Him, and a prayer of blessing and thanksgiving. Not much of a Thanksgiving meal to be remembered or repeated, except that what He did the next day gave eternal significance to this meal.
His willingness to sacrifice Himself according to His Father’s will validated His “eucharist” and gave eternal significance to the elements (bread and wine) of His thanksgiving meal. If He had not laid down His life for His Father and for us, then His thanksgiving would have been empty and the symbols meaningless. There would be no reality to which the symbols in this meal point to if there is no suffering and sacrifice.
Many of us have participated many times in the Holy Eucharist. We have come many times to the table of our Lord and joined in His thanksgiving meal. We have done so many times in the spirit of thanksgiving to Yahweh for what He has done for us through His Messiah. We have remembered and thanked Jesus for His broken body and shed blood as we take of the bread and wine. This is right and good.
However, have we seen ourselves only as passive recipients of the blessings that come from the broken body and shed blood of Jesus, or do we see ourselves being called to participate in His Eucharist. Are we not, as members of His body, to be the physical embodiment of the Eucharist on the earth? Are we not to become more than passive recipients in Jesus’ thanksgiving meal by following Him to lay down our lives for the lost? Are we not to validate our thanksgiving and give significance to the receiving of the bread and wine by participating in what Paul called, “the fellowship of His sufferings?”
As you sit down this Thanksgiving Day to possibly enjoy all the trimmings that surround this blessed holiday and you thank God for all His great blessings, take some time to remember that Palestinian thanksgiving meal started by Jesus and repeated millions of times around the world every year. Remember that it was the giving away of His life for others that validated and gave meaning to the Holy Eucharist. Vow to validate your participation in His thanksgiving meal by giving your life away so that others might live. This is the great thanksgiving.