Thanksgiving is not a festival on the liturgical calendar, such as the commemoration of a saint. In fact, it’s not even a religious holiday. It’s a federal holiday, one prescribed by our government.
In 1789, President George Washington declared a national holiday to be set aside for giving thanks. Our third President, Thomas Jefferson, ended the practice, calling it a conflict between church and state.
By the mid-nineteenth century there were many states celebrating a day of thanksgiving. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln set aside the last Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving. It bears noting that this proclamation was made while our nation was at war with itself.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and moved Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday in November. In 1941, Congress voted to move this national holiday back to the fourth Thursday in November, where it has been ever since.
We as a nation cherish our freedoms. We cherish the separation of church and state, a phrase found nowhere in our nation’s constitution or in any of its amendments. We believe that the state shall not tell the church what to believe, nor shall the church collect taxes and govern the people. Yet both realms have one thing in common: both have been given to us by God.
For this reason, St. Paul encourages us to pray for, among other things, our secular rulers so that we would live in peace. Paul writes, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”
Martin Luther spoke well of what it means to give thanks: “This also pertains to Christians. Gratitude always merits the receipt of more; ingratitude drains the fountain of divine goodness. Gratitude consists of more than the expression ‘I thank You, Lord God.’ It also involves acknowledging first that it is a gift of God, that a person knows that peace, which today holds sway here in Germany, a type of government, and the security that allows one to marry are pure gifts of God. It is a gift of God to have a king and a state and the pest without poison, etc.
“After all, Satan wants the air polluted, all the land burdened with pestilence and death. That this does not occur is a gift of God. We have so many kings and peoples, so much produce, food, and property, purely out of His goodness. This gratitude consists not only in our words alone but principally in our acknowledgement of the blessing we have received. Those people are rare who make such an acknowledgement. Thus no one gives thanks, nor do people pray. Even those who pray with their mouth do not make this acknowledgement. Gratitude must be involved with prayers, because one must confess the gifts he has received.”
There is something else we must confess: our sin. We’re all guilty of ingratitude. Our sinful hearts are selfish. We are more interested in what we can get rather than from whom we have received our gifts — namely, our heavenly Father. He gives us not merely the extraordinary things, but He also gives us each day our daily bread. As Luther teaches on the Lord’s Prayer, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray … that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.”
Luther explains also what is meant by daily bread: “Everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”
Yet we are so absorbed in our own lives, in our own problems, that we fail regularly to recognize the source of our gifts, our possessions. We are selfish, and we are self-idolatrous. We would rather get things than give thanks. Perhaps it’s a good thing we have this national holiday in place.
The greatest gift, for which we give thanks, is the gift of God’s Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our Lord came into this world to take our sins upon Himself, to become our sin, and pay with His very life the penalty we by our sins have deserved, giving His body and shedding His blood for the forgiveness of all our sins.
This is the same body and blood He gives us in the Holy Eucharist. Eucharist is Greek for “thanksgiving.” We receive in this Sacrament what He won on the cross for us, and we in turn give thanks for the gifts He has given us in this great Feast. We thank our Lord for first loving us, for dying for us, and for rising from the dead for us, that we will, through faith, one day dine with Him at the eternal Feast.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever.
Mark Schlamann is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Tooele.