Thanksgiving is not a holiday of the Catholic Church per se, but the tradition is alive in the earliest times of Judeo-Christian history. If one ‘Googles’ Thanksgiving, they will immediately pull up a list of references to the American holiday. If one searches further and asks the question, “What countries are known for being thankful?” most of the first page of links will include something of a Judeo-Christian nature, and almost no referrals to any particular country other than the United States. Canada is generally considered the only other country with a special day by that name, although thankful celebrations of the harvest are carried out all over the world..
The Ancient Greeks credited Thanksgiving to the Olympic goddess Demeter. Mythology claims that it was she who caused the first severe drought and also the first fertile relief from drought. She is said to have given corn to the humans and taught them how to plant productively. For all of this, the people gave thanks with an ancient RCIA-type rite dedicated to the mother goddess, known as the Eleusinian Mysteries..
In Leviticus 7, we get the first glimpse of giving thanks to God according to the Mosaic tradition. The chapter speaks directly about trespass and peace offerings made to the Lord. There are specifics about what food is to be prepared, including the meat, which is taken through a long and detailed process. It describes the necessity of eating at the proper time; meat can only be consumed precisely on schedule. Through it all, the word ‘thanksgiving’ pops up frequently.
The idea of giving thanks to God began even earlier when Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt. When they wandered hungry on the desert, God fed them with manna, a bread-like substance that collected at dawn like frost. The Jews were directed to gather the hoarfrost for six days, collecting a double portion on the sixth, that they would observe a day of rest on the seventh. This gift from God was not because of their thankfulness, but because they had been complaining constantly about their abandonment in the desert. The manna sustained their lives for forty years until they came into the land of Canaan, where they finally said “Thanks.” From then on, being thankful became part of Judaic teaching and is still included in every meal of the Jewish holy days.
The Book of Psalms is loaded with references to giving thanks. Psalm 50 specifically tells believers that God is not interested in meaningless sacrifices, but expects sincere thanks. Verse 14 says thanksgiving must be offered to God and the covenant upheld before him. For this, the Lord promised to always be there for them in their distress.
The Second Book of Maccabees tells of the attempt to conquer the Jews by Greco-Roman invaders. Israel may well have been the creator of passive resistance during this period. Even when military conquest was eminent and they at last took up arms, God interceded. Verse 11:9 says that the Jews all together thanked God for his mercy, and then riding behind the Lord, they became an invincible army. After that, Judas Maccabee called for prayers for all who died in their victory, the first reference of praying for the faithful departed.
Things took a different course with the birth of Jesus Christ. Through him, and most especially through the works of his disciple Paul, being thankful became part of Christian behavior, and an underlying theme of Catholic teaching today is being sorry for our sins and thankful for God’s mercy. The word ‘Eucharist’ comes from Greek and means thanksgiving, so each and every celebration of the Mass is giving thanks.
One of the earliest references to giving thanks in the Gospels does not come from Jesus, but from his Mother. In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Mary expresses thanks to the Lord for choosing her and for fulfilling his promise to Israel. She blessed the Most High. Expressions of thanks were also given around that same time by both parents of John the Baptist.
With Jesus, who served as our example, there never seemed to be an end to his giving thanks. He thanked the Father when he fed the multitudes. He thanked the Father when anyone was healed. He most certainly thanked the Father when he instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. And with the peace the world cannot understand, he thanked the Father even in his passion and death. It was about doing God’s will and being thankful for it.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church points in the direction of two particular times when Jesus began a very powerful prayer by thanking the Father. (CCC #2603-4) The first of those prayers is an acknowledgement of the Triune connection and a blessing on the Lord of all creation, sort of a mission statement for Jesus. (Matthew 11:25, Luke 10:21)
The second incident is when he prepares to call Lazarus from the grave. Jesus began by thanking the Father just for hearing him, even though he knew he always did. (John 11:41-2) The Catechism instructs that in these two prayers Jesus demonstrated the proper way to begin prayer with a commitment to God and thanks before a request is given. He made the same type of dedication in the Lord’s Prayer when he said, “Hallowed (holy) be thy name.”
Every Scripture reading for the Mass on Thanksgiving Day contains some derivative of the word ‘thank.’ Although it is not a holy day on the Church calendar, its celebration is provided for in the Roman Missal. Most parishes in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and throughout the United States pray this special liturgy, although it is rare for the congregation to ever be as full as on Sunday. Because no one really has to be in church that day, there is probably no better time to stop in, share the meal of Christ, and simply give thanks.
And if there is a question of what we might have to be thankful for when we are surrounded by so much bad news, St Paul may have answered it best. “…Always seek what is good for each other and for all. Rejoice always. Pray unceasingly. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:15b-18)