When I joined the Episcopal Church just a few years ago, I found it quite striking—and a bit funny—that Thanksgiving was actually a feast day in the Book of Common Prayer. Having grown up Catholic, I was used to unending feast days and special observances. But our “sanctoral kalendar” [sic], or calendar of saints, was related to the life and witness of, well, saints. Which isn’t to say we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. We most definitely did. With all the American staples of turkey, stuffing, corn, green beans, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and a side of Polish pierogis (for just a hint of heritage).
(Continue Reading…) That celebration of Thanksgiving, however, while it recognized God’s role in the blessings of life, felt like something different than our church observances. The church followed a different kalendar than the calendar of the world. We had a different way of marking time. Sometimes the two calendars intersected, but really only when the national calendar recognized even a secularized version of the church’s sacred kalendar—like Christmas or Easter. Thanksgiving, even if it involved as an organizing premise the offering of thanks to God, felt more American than Christian.
I chuckled, then, when I saw Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July listed as “major feasts” alongside the feast of Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint Michael and All Angels and the Feast of the Holy Innocents in the BCP (pg. 17). To be honest, it’s still taking some getting used to. But, if you think about it, what could be more sacred than taking time to give thanks?
To be sure, Thanksgiving in the US is a holiday—a holy day—established by an act of the secular government. It was on September 28, 1789, just before leaving for recess, that the first Federal Congress passed a resolution asking that the president institute a national day of thanksgiving. President George Washington, an Episcopalian, accordingly responded a few days later by issuing a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin.” And President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation sealed the yearly observance on the last Thursday of November.
Yet these acts of secular power merely represent the enshrinement of a deeper human impulse: the recognition that all we have comes not from our own contrivance, but from a source beyond us. We have been given all that we have. Our food, family, health, wellbeing—all of it, all of it is a gift from God. As the priest often says at the offertory in our eucharistic liturgy, quoting Scripture, “All things come from Thee, O Lord….” All things. Everything we have is given to us as a gift from God. And for that we give “most hearty and humble thanks.”
So whatever the history of this feast, and however it became enshrined as a celebration of our church, let us indeed offer up our heartfelt thanks. For the love of family and friends, reflecting in turn the love of God. For all that we have been given and for all the opportunities we have to give in turn.
“Almighty and gracious Father, we give thee thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we beseech thee, faithful stewards of thy great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.” (Collect for Thanksgiving Day, BCP pg. 194)