Not many know, but today is the end of the year. It is St. Andrew’s Day, marking the boundary between the old and new church years. The old one ends with Biblical texts reflecting, appropriately, on the end times. The new one begins with Advent, appropriate as a season of anticipation, beginning the march of the church year through a remembrance of the life, ministry and action of Jesus, followed by a focus on our own life.
Although it was done unintentionally, American Thanksgiving happens to fall every year within a few days of the conclusion of the church year. Despite the apparently coincidental alignment, there is no more suitable way to conclude our year than with a celebration of thanks.
The end of the “secular” year is when people reflect on the events and people in their lives “should auld acquaintance be forgot.” It is often followed by a resolve to do better, a repentance of sorts, with a shaky history of success. Since the second half of the Christian year is a focus on our ethics and lifestyle, a similar review is likewise in order at its’ end, and most likely will include some repentance as well, for those with any self-insight. This is encouraged by many of the texts for these last Sundays, which sharpen the awareness of both our behavior and the reality of the Lord’s standards and imminence. All Saints Day, which serves as kind of a gateway to the last Sundays, is a good example. The epistle is a picture of the glorious outcome available in the next life. The Gospel is a reading of the Beatitudes, the ethics textbook of our Lord for this life.
This ideally frames the lifestyle to which we are called, a mixture of challenging morality and glimpses of glory. It is all pulled together by a plan of thanksgiving, which makes the calendar coincidence providential. Our Thanksgiving comes from several threads of American history; Pilgrims, Jamestown and others. It was a harvest festival, versions of which are celebrated throughout the world.
But the concept of harvest is vague for most of us. The connection to the land and the seasons has been replaced by the supermarket, with its continuous cornucopia flowing from around the world without regard to seasons or the fortunes of weather. It is startling to realize how recently our world has radically transformed from the rural America of 100 years ago to the urban one of today, where only a minuscule percentage of people live by farming full-time. Those who do are usually so specialized that they are as dependent on the supermarket as the rest of us while growing an exclusive crop of grain, soy, corn or whatever, or raising only cows, chickens or pigs. The average American of a century ago not only farmed, but was often largely self-sufficient in food, with a variety of crops and animals on the property. Drought, hail, wind, blight, frost and the other vagaries of climate had direct and often devastating economic consequences. To arrive at the end of the season with a sufficient or even bountiful harvest was cause for celebration beyond the grasp of an urban dweller. That it was the conclusion of the church year as well would seem logical.
What comes together with all this is a pattern of life, perhaps best described as “an attitude of gratitude.” That the historic Church and the American Republic both developed this in a rural, agricultural setting is to be expected. The teachings of Jesus are in the same context, full of references to a rural way of life. But it does translate to the current urban world, with adjustments to make it relevant. There have also been urban Christians for a very long time. Our abundant environment, which knows of little significant material want, should make us the most thankful people ever. Nor is thanksgiving something dreamed up in recent times.
Thanksgiving also is built into our life by Jesus. It is at the center of life as defined by him. Jesus left us few commands. To do the Eucharist is a crucial one. And it is simply the Greek word for thanksgiving. The manner in which we are to celebrate it is an all-encompassing process.
All of our existence is sacred. We live on the earth, which is the Lord’s, we are told that we ourselves are his temple. Thus, all that we are, all that we do and all that we have is his sacred property. We work on it during the week, and on Sundays we bring it to the gathering he has mandated, and offer all that we have done, as well as each other and ourselves, to him in thanks for the gifts of life, breath and nurture that he loans to us, along with our ability to actualize the gifts on behalf of all of us and his earth.
At the center of our Sunday offering is bread and wine. It consists of grain and grapes, items grown through his beneficence and our labor, and then manufactured into bread and wine by our hands (and feet). In turn, he receives these gifts and fills them with his very presence of overwhelming love, returning them to us. We then take these sacred gifts into ourselves and carry them with us and in our hearts to bless the coming week’s activities.
This is the Eucharistic process of life which he has established for us, the Thanksgiving process, to translate it into a word reflecting our Norse and Teutonic linguistic roots. It creates an attitude of perpetual gratitude for the unmerited grace of God (the Greek “eucharist” literally means “good grace”) and the nurturing and sustaining environment he has placed us in, and causes us to offer our life, efforts and goods to him at the Offering, thus initiating the eucharistic process for yet another week.
As we conclude another church year, what could be more appropriate than to offer the year to God in thanks, the eucharistic process annualized? How sweet that the authorities of the past, many of whom would have looked askance at the concept of a church year and would have regarded the idea of eucharistic offering with great suspicion, nevertheless in the providence of God provided a day of Thanksgiving at the crucial moment.
And modern man, often unclear on who to thank or if he should take credit for it all himself, fills the day with games and food, and anticipation of the hunting and pillaging of Black Friday. Eucharistic joy is lost, along with the process. But for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, and hearts which are open, the transition of the old year to the new is an ideal time to pause to offer eucharist, thanksgiving. And then to begin the new year in the continuous eucharistic process of offering the world and our toil and thanks, to receive in return the overflowing grace and love of our Creator and Savior.