The Great Thanksgiving

Text: Deuteronomy/Reflecting on the Day

It only happens maybe once every seven years, where the first Sunday in October happens to be the day before the second Monday. Traditionally, the first Sunday in October has become World Communion Sunday, where Christians all over the world celebrate the sacrament of communion together as a sign of unity. In Canada, the Sunday before the second Monday of the month is Thanksgiving Sunday. So in a rare convergence of dates, today is both World Communion Sunday AND Thanksgiving Sunday. One would think that I would be pulled in two different directions as to what the theme of the service should really be. Yet having the two on the same day is not a bad thing at all. In fact, when combined together, there is something about the greater whole that both shine a light on each other.

Our Thanksgiving holiday as we celebrate it in Canada has no real Biblical link. It was created by the government in the 19th Century. Given how cold the Canadian Winters can be, giving thanks for the harvest AND getting it in ahead of the first bite of frost seems rather appropriate. We’ve since incorporated a number of American traditions from their November holiday of the same name, the obligatory Turkey being the most obvious. That having been said, there was a yearly festival called “First Fruits” described in Deuteronomy that is frequently read on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. It is giving thanks for the harvest, returning to God the very first of the crop yield… rather than the general harvest at the end of the season. There is certainly a precedence in the Bible for giving thanks… so we don’t really have a problem with it.

Yet because today is both Thanksgiving Sunday AND World Communion Sunday, there’s new angle that we don’t often get to explore. Thanksgiving, as in giving thanks to God, is fundamentally built-in to our celebrations of communion. In your bulletins, there is a little booklet that details text of the prayer that we will be using later in the service when we move to the table. The prayer’s title of it means everything:

The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving.

This isn’t just an introductory prayer that we say as we come together for communion, it’s not something we do so we can dive into the Bread and the Wine… the prayer itself is the oldest central core of Christian Worship. Everything else we do rotates around it… and that includes the sermon! That’s how central, that’s how truly important it is to our faith.

It begins by inviting the entire congregation into this prayer through the response at the very beginning. It then recalls God’s saving acts in history, starting from creation on down, touching on those redemptive acts that God has done: Abraham and Sarah, the Exodus, the prophets, and then to Jesus himself. The content may vary a little bit, but the whole idea is that it covers the bases, remembering that God has constantly reached out a hand to us from the beginning… and we are giving thanks for all those saving moments in history, and how they culminate in the life and work of Jesus Christ… and how that redeeming and defining moment continues to have power today.

The back-and-forth responses that we have in this prayer is symbolic of the whole congregation together is responding with a genuine sense of thanks to God of that guidance and presence throughout all of history. This isn’t just something that the minister does, but as a whole congregation we do this together in the presence of God. It’s why we call it the Great Thanksgiving, quite literally, the thanksgiving of the greater whole… not just as individuals… but as an entire community of faith.

It’s why at one point in the prayer where I say, “we join together with all the saints of every time and place.” and everyone else joins together saying or singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, God of power and might…” If we’re really on the ball, we might remember there are two places where that appears in the Bible. The first time is in Isaiah, the second, Revelation… both of them appear in a vision of the heavenly throne room. The Great Thanksgiving is evoking this image, that we are joining our voices with the heavenly choirs in the worship of God… and especially on World Communion Sunday, Christians all over the world are doing the same. Suddenly we realize that it’s not so much that God comes down, as we are lifted up. On some level, around this table, we too come into God’s presence in the heavenly throne room.

But it’s also more than that…

Once the prayer establishes where we are, it then establishes why we are there. This is the core of the prayer where we give thanks to God for the personal gift of Jesus Christ, going into some of the details as to why we’re doing it.

One version of this part of the prayer goes like this:

“To all who believed,

he gave power to become your children.

In ministry among your own

Jesus cared for all,

forgiving their failures,

healing their hurts,

and nurturing their faith,

giving himself in utter sacrifice

for those whom he loved.

He inspired ordinary folk to Spirit-filled living

and displayed in his life, death, and rising again

the power of your Spirit.”

In some versions of the prayer, the words that we use at the breaking of the bread are included here… remembering that on the night that he was betrayed, Jesus took bread and broke it… In Presbyterian circles, we place them after the prayer while I break the bread and pour the wine. It’s part of the bigger picture of remembering what God has done.

Yet even after going into all these details… we know we haven’t covered all the bases. No amount of words that we have can possibly describe that sense of gratitude that we can have for God. That’s why there’s that proclamation: “Great is the mystery of faith… Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

As the prayer closes, we then ask God to help us to be faithful. “Pour out your Holy Spirit…” That after having remembering everything that God has done for us, we might be able to reflect some of that love to the world… in the people we encounter and share our lives with. Ultimately, that’s what we’re driving for… and that somehow we will come away from this table with perhaps a new energy to treat the people around us differently… to be a reflection of Christ’s love in action.

It is only after we offer this prayer together that we then break bread and share the wine… The prayer then becomes the action. It’s intentional… that it’s more than just a nice sentiment that we share, but that in this expression of thanksgiving, we are really, really trying to be God’s people in both word and in action. For us thanksgiving is more than just a single day, or even a weekend, but a way of being and a way of living. As Christians it literally is the essence and foundation of how we approach life itself. That life is a gift from God, and we are constantly giving thanks for it.

Happy Thanksgiving!