“Now thank we all our God,” by Martin Rinkart, is a classic chorale hymn of pure thanksgiving, without dwelling at all on the misery of the human condition which contrasts with God’s goodness. Yet it was written during the Hundred Years Wars when all Europe was convulsed with generations of violent upheaval and the consequent suffering. Given the current fear of Muslims, it seems a bit ironic that these were wars exclusively by Christians against other Christians, all quite ecumenical, involving Protestants, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics. While the wars had denominational aspects, they were primarily fought for power, territory and glory, as most wars are.
We have arrived at the national celebration of Thanksgiving, 2016, at the conclusion of a massive struggle as well, although mostly non-violent. As a result, this year, no doubt, some are more thankful than others. The holiday is intended as a united offering of thanks as a nation. But the reality is there will be no coming together of all Americans this Thanksgiving and probably not any time soon. At no time since the Civil War has this country been so polarized and tense and the possibilities for bad outcomes are serious and worrisome.
What should American Christians do about this? That such a hymn of unmitigated thanks could have been written and widely sung in a time of suffering, despair, fear and hostility should be a clue. As Christians, we have access to information unknown to many of our fellow citizens. It can help and even be of comfort. The fact is, the earth is the Lord’s (don’t take my word for it-see Psalm 24). It is one of the major items in the “countless gifts of love” that Rinkart sings about. It is a fact which transcends who wins an election, or the well-being or even survival of a nation. It calls us to see a loyalty beyond patriotism or self-interest, and a community of family, beyond blood relations or citizenship, with our fellow baptized children of the Father. It calls us to steward, or manage, the earth in accordance with God’s plan, so that it can in turn nurture us. We need to be single-minded in doing this, regardless of what is going on in our nation. It is not, nor has it ever been, national policy to steward God’s earth in more than the most marginal way. We as Christians know that we must do so anyway, as best we can, and give thanks to God for the gift.
Which brings us to Thanksgiving Day. Somewhere among the turkey feast, the football and Black Friday is the concept that we gather to give thanks, originally because this was harvest time and a nation of farmers understood that life was only sustained by a reasonable harvest. Today we are an urban nation and food comes from the supermarket all year long from all around the world. The connection with the earth has been lost and any thanks for the harvest appears archaic and quaint to modern folks. Thanksgiving also presumed a Being to whom the thanks was directed. The average Pilgrim did not thank his “lucky stars,” he thanked God.
In the post-Christian era, which we have entered but not yet adjusted to, many American Christians continue the long blending of the nation and the Kingdom, the Bible and the Constitution, political freedom with spiritual freedom, the cause of the country with the will of God. It was never appropriate or accurate, so perhaps it is a gift that the contrast is now so blatant as to be obvious and we can make the proper distinction. Did you look for a “Christian” candidate in the recent election? If so, you looked in vain. Do you look for schools to teach a Christian perspective? You can forget it unless you are paying extra for a Christian parochial school. Are you looking for your city council, county commission, state legislature or Congress to steward the earth according to God’s plan? You will be thanked not to mention it.
A great many Americans this Thanksgiving will therefore not give any thanks at all. Others may feel thankful but will not know who to thank. Reaching the descendants of the formerly faithful is not going well. The connection to the Lord seems to have faded along with the connection to his earth.
Not to worry. The gloomy scenario of our contemporary state is mentioned only to define the reality in which we live. For the Christian, the very center of life is Thanksgiving, which we usually call by its derivative from Greek, Eucharist. It comes from two words, “eu” meaning “good,” and “xaris,” meaning “grace.” The sturdy peasants and burghers who first sang Rinkart’s hymn in the 17th century had very much fallen back on the basic of grace, the undeserved and unchanging love of God for us in good times and bad. When starvation, pestilence, looting and chaos happened, even when Christians fought and killed fellow Christians in direct disobedience to God, God’s grace remained. It still does.
There is therefore no better day for a Christian than Thanksgiving and no better way to celebrate it than with Eucharist. The world around us oozes sin, destruction and disobedience. We transcend it because God in his Resurrection has won the victory, in which we share. There is no Pollyanna in this. The world around us, with its problems and failures, is real. It can inflict real suffering on us and others. The mandate to steward the earth is also real, and we need to be on the job. But God’s grace is real, too, and it overcomes all the mess. Therefore, lift up your heart, it is truly right and meet to give thanks, to live a Eucharistic life, today and every day. Rinkart did and so can we.