Celebrations of thanksgiving, especially for harvests, have been held by cultures throughout history. In our national history, we know that services were held by both Spaniards and the French in the 16th century and were held in what became Virginia as early as 1607. The Virginia Historical Society states that in 1619, a group settled in Berkeley Hundred in Virginia were bound by their charter to keep the day of their arrival as a holy “day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
As children, most of us equate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims in Plymouth. We know that the meal that they shared with the Wampanoag tribe had little in common with those we share today.
When the first Federal Congress passed a resolution in September 1789 asking that the President of the United States recommend to the nation a day of thanksgiving, George Washington named Thursday 26 November 1789 as a Day of Public Thanksgiving. Dates for such a tradition were malleable until, at the urging of author Sarah Josepha Hale, Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Proclamation in 1863, declaring a national day of Thanksgiving (with the hope of healing our broken nation) setting the last Thursday of November as the standard.
Historically, we are reminded of the Eurocentric focus of such a Holiday that ignores the fact that native peoples were giving thanks for harvests in this land long before settlers arrived. How or even whether we celebrate Thanksgiving has become a debated topic among some historians, sociologists, and Church leaders. All of this focuses on the events of a few hundred years ago as if that is the “origin” of thanksgiving. In our faith heritage, we go much further back, to the time of the Hebrew people becoming a nation. There were three major festivals: Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (booths or tents). They were celebrations that commemorated deliverance from Egypt, the gifting of the Torah (law), and God’s providence for the people as they wandered in the desert. They also coincided with agricultural changes such as planting and harvest seasons. These are the festivals that Jesus and the disciples celebrated each year, and which brought Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem. Passover was transformed for us with the death and resurrection of Christ. Pentecost was transformed for us by the coming of the Holy Spirit.
I can’t help but feel that we, as people of faith in this day and (particularly) this land, should consider giving thanks for God’s abundant providence as a reclaiming of Sukkot. We recognized that not everyone who came to this land came willingly, but as slaves or indentured servants. Some were sent here as punishment for crimes or because they were “inconvenient.” Still, for many, it was a trip filled with hopeful expectation of better possibilities. It’s why the Puritans and others like them came. It’s why so many came from Germany or Scandinavia. All were wanderers, some with the hope of the Hebrews as they left Egypt, others feeling the scorching heat of tribulation, and still others wondering if they would ever find a place to belong. Truth be told, many people are still defined by these categories. In our national history, the religious services of Thanksgiving became linked with the life sustaining crops they gathered, be it a meager five kernels of corn or silos filled with the same. And now we look to this SEASON of Thanksgiving as the beginning of a sacred lifestyle rather than a singular day. We draw from the Jewish roots of our religious forebears and unite their spirit with these words from Abraham Lincoln:
“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people….and I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers by the lamentable civil strife…and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”
Lord, we give you thanks for the abundant outpouring of grace and mercy we receive from your hand. You have given us your Son for our salvation and have blessed us with your Spirit that we might truly live, now and forevermore. We give thanks for the beauty of the earth and how it sustains us. We give you thanks for friends, family, and the Church. We ask your forgiveness for how we have neglected your gifts, taken advantage of your creation, and taken your tender mercies for granted. Most of all, O Lord, as we give thanks for ample meals, we ask that you use us to provide for those who are hungry in body and spirit, especially in this region. Lord, we cannot undo hurtful and hateful history, but we have been given freedom from you that we may choose a holy, wise, and loving future and we pray that, with the help of your Holy Spirit, we shall live as a people who honor and glorify the Christ who has made us his own. Amen.
Pastor Jon-Marc MacLean