|"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)|
There is not a lot that we know for sure about the first Thanksgiving that the Massachusetts pilgrims celebrated in 1621. Historians are even kind of foggy on the date. One of the few things we do know is that they had come through a very rough year. After making landfall in late 1620, the population of the small colony had been cut in half thanks to disease and exposure to the elements. We can imagine a pall of death and a prevailing sense that they still might not make it probably hung in the air. However, that summer they had fared better, and the first harvest had apparently gone well. The crops had come in and there might be enough to eat as another winter set in. It was a very bright spot in an otherwise dim situation. So, as was their tradition, they organized a feast of thanksgiving, most likely based on some customs they had brought with them from the Old World.
I bet this is how most of us view thanksgiving, and not just the holiday with all the legends that have been tacked onto it, but about giving thanks in general. That is, we think of thanksgiving as the sensible and appropriate thing to do when things are looking up, when we finally come into good times, however insignificant or momentous they may be.
The other day our two daughters spied a discarded cardboard box we had chucked out on the back porch to break down for recycling once it stopped raining. Don’t ask me why, but there are few things that bring young children as much joy as a big cardboard box does. With timid excitement, they asked if I could bring it back inside so they could play with it. It was already a little soggy from the damp air, but I said, “Why not?” and dragged it back through the door to the den. Hilarity ensued. My seven-year-old, with sheer happiness in her eyes, looked at me, clasped her hands over her chest, and said with utmost sincerity, “Daddy, thank you for all you’ve ever given us!”
When things are great, when we happen upon the cardboard box of our dreams, it just seems right to express our thanks. It’s as if thanksgiving, then, is spurred by relief…relief that the crops come in well…relief that the job offer has been extended…relief that the surgeon says she managed to get all the cancer. That is all well and good, I suppose, but it’s not exactly how the apostle Paul tells us to give thanks in the letter he writes to the Philippians. At the climax of his letter, after he’s explained a few things about arrogance and how a community can get along better if they keep Christ’s humility at its center, Paul gives this command: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
For Paul, it seems as if relief or happiness is not necessarily the primary instigator for thanksgiving. “In everything,” he clearly says, “with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And it is not just thanksgiving which Paul thinks may be made in all things and at all times, but joy as well. Two times he stresses it, just to make the point: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice!” That could mean, therefore, in times of loss, or times of grief…times of hard winter and bad crops. Times, that is, when relief might be in terribly short supply.
It would be one thing to hear such a command from someone who had essentially always had it made, from someone whose life was filled with wonderful cardboard boxes, empty or not. But Paul was writing this letter from prison where he was most likely being held for execution. He is not speaking from a place of relief, but of great hardship, and yet the letter to the Philippians is by far Paul’s most cheery letter! From beginning to end he is upbeat and optimistic, even though his own life is probably wasting away and though, in a material sense, he has very little. If Paul can find reason to be thankful and joyful in his current dreadful circumstances, then surely he can implore the free Philippians to give thanks in their situation, whatever it is. How could this be?
Well, for Paul, the cross of Jesus had redefined what a good time is. For Paul, the death and resurrection of God’s own Son had completely turned the tables on what was valuable, what was worthy of praise and thanksgiving. If, as Paul believes, God himself has somehow entered the human experience and lost everything—and in the most humiliating way, at that—then everything that we have and experience and lose must be viewed in light of that fact. For Paul, this meant that all his accolades, all his worldly and even religious honors and distinctions for which he surely could have been extremely grateful, didn’t really amount to much in the end. Whatever gains he had, he says earlier to the Philippians, he has come to regard as a loss because of Christ. The power of suffering for Christ’s kingdom and the hope of eternal life could be lived in any circumstance—even prison—and that was far more valuable than anything the world could offer.
It goes yet further, of course. The word of Christ means, for example, that God has already “pilgrimmed” through the harshest Massachusetts winter, and is already victorious over our harsh winters now. It means God, in Christ, has already felt the humility of poverty and the label of unemployment. It means, too, that God, in Christ, has already received the devastating cancer diagnosis alongside of us, and stood by the grave of a loved one, wondering if God has forsaken us. And it means God has stood on the other side of that grave, victorious over it. The cross and all that it gains for us has redefined, reorganized, reprioritized all for which we would be thankful. This makes joy and gratitude possible—not necessarily always easy, but possible and appropriate—on Thanksgiving and in every human situation.
The late journalist and writer Dr. Fulton Oursler, who authored The Greatest Story Ever Told, and who, like Paul, was not always a believer, but converted to Christianity as an adult, used to tell of an old woman who took care of him when he was a child—a woman who not only expressed her thanks, but felt it. Anna was a former American slave who, after emancipation, was hired by the family for many years. He remembered her sitting at the kitchen table, her hands folded and her eyes gazing upward as she prayed, “Much obliged, Lord, for my vittles.” He asked her what vittles were and she replied that they were food and drink. He told her that she would get food and drink whether or not she gave thanks, and Anna said, “Yes, we’ll get our vittles, but it makes ‘em taste better when we’re thankful.”
She told him that an old preacher taught her, as a little girl, to always look for things to be grateful for. So, as soon as she awoke each morning, she asked herself, “What is the first thing I can be grateful for today?” Sometimes the smell of early-morning coffee perking in the kitchen found its way to her room. On those mornings, the aroma prompted her to say, “Much obliged, Lord, for the coffee. And much obliged, too, for the smell of it!”
Young Fulton grew up and left home. One day he received a message that Anna was dying. He returned home and found her in bed with her hands folded over her white sheets, just as he had seen them folded in prayer over her white apron at the kitchen table so many times before. He wondered what she could give thanks for at a time like this. As if reading his mind, she opened her eyes and gazed at the loving faces around her bed. Then, shutting her eyes again, she said quietly, “Much obliged, Lord, for such fine friends.”
So, on this cold Thanksgiving Day, when the weather suggests we may be in for another rough winter (at least for Richmond), may you remember Paul’s advice, Anna’s philosophy and look around you to find “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing…and think about those things.” They are there. Because of the cross, they are there, somewhere…be they fine friends. Or fine food. Or a warm place to eat it. Or, maybe you look into your life right now and find just an empty cardboard box. Whatever it is, let it stand for us in the shadow of the cross and the Lord’s table gifts from the God who empties himself--empties the tomb--that we might it all.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.