Across cultures, there’s a long and venerable history of marking a celebration of thanksgiving for the harvest. With the hardest work done and food carefully stored for the winter season, such festivals provided agrarian societies with something of a breathing space in which to mark the transition with gratitude.
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Our own national holiday of Thanksgiving is rooted in that tradition, though for the vast majority of Canadians it is only vaguely connected to the harvest, to the land. There are certainly many people here who have family connections to farming—who grew up on the farm, or whose parents or grandparents did—and there are even a few who actually are still actively involved in farming. Some of us have gardens in our yards, some are involved in community gardens, and some are members in organic farm co-ops. Andrew Colman even grows hops in his apartment, to use in his beer-making…
But realistically, what percentage of our food do even the most avid of gardeners actually plant, tend, and harvest? At most, maybe 5%? Most of what we eat comes from the grocery store; carefully washed vegetables, fruit—often coming from halfway across the world—that has been carefully selected so that it displays well, plastic wrapped meats laid out on Styrofoam trays complete with a little absorbent pad to sop up the unsightly juices. It is all very convenient, and it is all quite removed from the realities of the work and sweat and dirt of harvest.
What has long struck me as even more vestigial about our national institution of Thanksgiving, though, is the very idea of giving thanks. Our is an increasingly secular culture; the 2011 census revealed that 23.9% of Canadians declared themselves as having “no religion,” and of those who identified with the Christian faith only a fragment are actually active in a church community. So over this weekend as families gather to devour that turkey, to whom is thanks being given? For many people it is just a case of having one last long weekend before the winter begins, providing a good excuse to gather people together to share a great meal. That is by no means a bad thing; in fact, in a society in which families are less and less likely to sit down together for dinner, it is really quite a good thing. And maybe for many people, it is enough to be generally thankful for the shared meal and the statutory holiday.
For the community for whom tonight’s reading from Deuteronomy was written, the idea of giving thanks at harvest time was anything but vague or vestigial. It begins, “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess,” and right away we need to recall that these words were addressed to a people who had not only been landless, they’d been slaves. They themselves had been possessions, working the land of their owners and surviving on what little provisions they’d been allowed. But that is all changing. When you settle that land, “you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.” Take some of the freshest and best of the harvest, and carry it to the temple where it can be offered as a sign of thankfulness to God, for the land that produced it is God’s gift to you. They’re pretty clear that it is the Lord to whom they are giving thanks; that’s the point of this ritual act of offering.
“When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” from which flows a five verse rehearsal of the story of the birth of the people of God. Make your offering, and retell the story of who you are, and whose you are, culminating with the proclamation, “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” Again, no mistaking here who is the giver of the gift.
Then—and only then—“you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.” Have a feast, in other words, but make sure to include the non-Israelite outsider, which suggests to me that the gift of land and harvest is to be held generously, with open hands. Maybe the sharing of the feast in that way is meant to be transformational, even sacramental, in the sense that it is intended to effect what it signifies. By bringing the basket of produce as an offering and a contribution to the shared feast, one learns to hold things lightly. By rehearsing the story of origins and liberation, one is made aware of a deeper identity as being part of a people. By sharing the feast with the stranger, one learns that the line between insider and outsider is so very thin as to be finally meaningless. That’s the nature of these rituals and liturgies; they actually do something.
I’m quite sure that some who arrived with their offering did it out of a narrow sense of religious obligation. Maybe they held back some of the really nice produce, and maybe when they came to the rehearsal of the great story they just did it by rote: (deep sigh) “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor, he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number…” As for the presence of the “aliens who reside with you in the land”? Tolerated with dutifully polite distance, but not truly welcomed. But to those who embraced the ritual and owned the words? A very different thing altogether.
I had a conversation this week about the meaning of the words that I say when the bread of communion is broken. “This is the body of Christ,” I proclaim. “Behold what you are; become what you receive.” It is a theological statement borrowed from St Augustine, yet in a very real sense it points to the same sort to thing that is work in the thanksgiving ritual outline in Deuteronomy; it points to the transformational character of the action of communion. Picture the action in your mind’s eye. The bread is held up and broken into two pieces, in preparation for our communal sharing. “This is the body of Christ,” I say, and here in one of his sermons on communion preached to the newly baptized Augustine comments, “My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit.” And so I continue, “Behold what you are; become what you receive.” Here Augustine offers the following: “To that which you see in front of you, you respond, ‘Amen,’ and by responding you are saying ‘Yes.’” Yes, I see in this bread a sacramental sign of the body of Christ—the presence of Christ among us and in us and through us. It is not some esoteric thing to be preserved behind glass… it is bread, to be shared. Share the one bread, and in doing that dare to become one people, one body; we dare to believe that Jesus binds us together in this story meal that we rehearse week in and week out, until one day we begin to realize that our truest identity is as members of this one body of Christ. “Be a member of the body of Christ,” says Augustine, “so that your ‘Amen’ may be true.”
But all of this only has real “grip” on us if we embrace the imagery, the action, the words, in all of their richness. Not by rote, and not as a matter of habitual religious practice. Such things can easily go dead on us. But as an intentional sharing that can actually transform us or undo us or reconcile us? That’s a very different thing altogether.
One of the traditional names for communion is eucharist, from the Greek word eukharistia, or “thanksgiving.” You know what that means? For us, every Sunday is thanksgiving Sunday, in which we acknowledge the Giver of the great gift of life, and in these acts of prayer, song, silence, and communion open ourselves yet again to the possibilities of renewal, transformation, healing, and reconciliation. Turkey and all the trimmings are more than fine on the dinner table—enjoy them, wherever you find yourself dining this weekend—but the symbolic meal set each week on this table will nourish you far more deeply. As Jesus proclaimed in the gospel appointed for today, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Believe it as best you can, be thankful… and come to the table.