My wife Lesley and I have a dilemma. Since she is a Permanent Resident of Canada but still an American citizen, we approach the festivities of this weekend with an unresolved question — that is, does the real Thanksgiving fall on the second Monday in the month of October, or on the fourth Thursday in the month of November?
In order to seek to resolve this debate, once and for all, I consulted that treasure trove of truth and trivia, namely the internet, only to discover that the origins of Thanksgiving, in the two nations, trace themselves to different events.
Apparently, and I quote, “the event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the [so-called[ New World in October 1621. This feast lasted three days, and—as accounted by attendee Edward Winslow—it was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims.”
By contrast, Canadian Thanksgiving is often traced back to 1578 and to a service that was conducted by a clergyman who was on a sailing expedition led by Sir Martin Frobisher, from England, in search of the Northwest Passage. The crew paused, upon arriving in Newfoundland, to give thanks for the blessings that they had experienced, and the continued safety and success that they were hoping to continue to experience, on that journey. Still others suggest that it dates back to the harvest activities of French settlers, while still others suggest that many of the traditional dimensions of Canadian Thanksgiving arrived in our country with the coming of United Empire Loyalists.
So, since even the internet could not resolve our dilemma, we are left with the fact that we will have to celebrate Thanksgiving – at least in our home – in both October and November!
A bit more exploration revealed that even though there were various provincial Thanksgiving celebrations, in different regions of the country, for many years, a national proclamation was made in 1857, by the Governor General Vincent Massey, which read, in part,
Whereas it hath pleased Almighty God in His great goodness to vouchsafe many blessings throughout the years to the people of Canada;
We therefore considering that these blessings vouchsafe to the people of Canada do call for a solemn and public acknowledgement have thought fit, by and with the advice of Our Privy Council for Canada, to appoint the second Monday in October in each and every year as a day of general thanksgiving; and We do hereby appoint the second Monday in October in the year of Our Lord one thousand nine hundred and fifty-seven and each year thereafter as a day of general thanksgiving to Almighty God for the blessings with which the people of Canada have been favoured; and We do hereby invite all Our people of Canada to observe the said day each year as a day of general thanksgiving.
In passing, I found myself smiling when I read that a Canadian government official, and no less than the Governor General of Canada, was willing to clarify that the thanks that are offered on this particular national holiday were intended to be directed towards Almighty God.
Regardless of the origin stories that have become attached to this particular celebration in the various countries of North America, what is clear is that this particular holiday is not rooted in a specific religious story or religious tradition.
Which is different from many of our common celebrations. Regardless of whether everyone acknowledges their religious or spiritual origins, there can be no question that Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter all find connections with biblical stories and religious traditions. And even many of the “lesser” holidays –Valentine’s Day, or St. Patrick’s Day, for example, may have many non-religious traditions connected with them – with everything from chocolate hearts to green beer, but the names of those saint’s days still remind us that there is an explicitly religious origin and meaning, to them, at some level. Even New Year’s Day, which is rarely recognized as a religious holiday, nonetheless calls us to remember, year in and year out, the number of years that have passed since the approximate date of the birth of a peasant child in a stable in Bethlehem. Even in our secular age, the narratives and stories of faith still play a powerful and influential role in the rhythms of our culture and the celebrations of the year.
But then we come to Thanksgiving, and tell stories about Pilgrims and farmers and indigenous greetings and explorers and shared meals and turkeys and harvest celebrations.
And yet, there is a profoundly spiritual and religious dimension to this holiday. Because at the heart of it is an invitation to gratitude, an opportunity to intentionally cultivate a spirituality of thankfulness, a chance to stop and simply give thanks.
If there had to be a contender for which biblical story should become the “go to” passage for Thanksgiving Day, today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke would be a good candidate. The passag is only found in Luke – about Jesus’ encounter with ten lepers while he was passing through Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem for the last and fateful journey of his life.
We are told that, while passing through a village, a group of lepers called out to him. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Their words did not contain any specific request for healing, simply for whatever mercy he could offer to them in the midst of their suffering.
His response to them did not, as happened in so many other of the miracle accounts, result in a prolonged conversation with them, nor any touch of healing or wonder-working power. Instead, he simply told them to go and show themselves to the priests.
Even though his words did not even contain the promise of healing, the lepers clearly understood the implications of Jesus’ command, which is why they rushed away – that is, one of the roles that the priests played in that ancient culture was to determine and declare that a person who had been deemed to be unclean or unfit for life in the community – such as a leper — was now healthy, safe and “acceptable”. Jesus’ command to go to the priests and show themselves was a signal that they were about to be healed, ready to be welcomed back.
And so they went. The latter part of verse 14 is intriguingly phrased – “and as they went, they were made clean.” It was not the touch of Christ that effected some sudden miraculous transformation, but rather their willingness to obey his command, and to set out in obedience — even before the promised cure had taken effect. And as they went, they were made clean.
“Then,” we read in verse 15, “one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan” (which those of us who remember the story of the “supposedly” Good Samaritan will remember carried with it a host of connotations).
All had received the blessing of healing – expressing gratitude was not a prerequisite for blessing – rather, gratitude was simply a response, and the right, the exemplary and the appropriate response, to the man’s awareness that he had been healed.
Jesus acknowledged how different the man’s reaction was to the reaction that had been demonstrated by the other lepers. “’Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’”
That final phrase invites an interesting opportunity for reflection into the scene. That is, the words of Jesus suggest that the true fullness of healing was not simply demonstrated in physical relief from the illness and disease that had affected all ten lepers – but was demonstrated in a restored ability to express gratitude. There is a lot of wisdom in that little part of the story – the reminder that the ability to express gratitude is a sign of good health, wholeness in mind, body and spirit. There are so many who seem well, but can do nothing but grumble and complain; but those who are able to give thanks, to them the blessings of life become always more evident and apparent.
And so, if there was a need for a biblical story to encapsulate the spirit of Thanksgiving Day, surely this little scene from Luke’s Gospel might be it. There is a lot of inspiration that we can draw from the simple act of stopping, as the healed man did, and say thanks.
To do as that one leper did – to stop, to turn away from the distractions and directions that we are focusing on, and to say thanks.
And what a long list of blessings we can all imagine.
Thanks for the little daily blessings that we usually take for granted. Thanks for a beautiful day like the one that we are living, right here and right now. Thanks for the love of family and friends. Thanks for the good food and clean water that sustain us. Thanks for the gifts of creativity and intellect, reason and imagination. Thanks for opportunities for a good laugh, a morning cup of coffee, a stirring piece of music.
Thanks for this beautiful land in which to live, and peaceful communities in which to enjoy our days. Thanks for political leaders and public servants who present themselves to such harsh scrutiny and criticism as they seek to present their ideas and visions for this country. Thanks that even the most ardent political opponents, in this country, meet each other with words and debates rather than with guns and weapons, and that transitions in power between them occur with good wishes to those who prevail from the lips of those who are defeated.
And the opportunities for thanks go on. Thanks for health care when we need it, and education for all. Thanks for good roads (even when they require construction crews to slow up traffic for a few minutes!). Thanks for schools and libraries, hospitals and concert halls. Thanks for churches and faith communities that serve quietly and faithfully in every community in the land. Thanks for work to do, and for opportunities to rest. Thanks for strength in the midst of life’s inevitable adversities, for comfort in the face of life’s inevitable sorrows, for renewed inspiration in those moments when boredom and apathy threaten to overwhelm us. Thanks for the cries of newborn children, for the gifts of new life, for the community of love that is fashioned in the waters of baptism, for fellow companions on our journeys of faith and of life, for the wisdom and insight of age, for peace and rest when our days are done.
Thanks for the love, mercy and forgiveness of God, and all of those amazing gifts of grace that help us to stand up again when we mess up and fall down. Thanks for that divine Spirit that gives us glimmers and glimpses of a great mystery at work in us and on our behalf. Thanks for a Saviour who walks with us as a friend, who teaches us with gentle kindness, who hears our cries for mercy in our times of need, who heals us and blesses us.
Thanks for a faith that – in its fullness – not only heals us our spirits and restores our souls, but invites us to live, in response, with gratitude.
Thanks for opportunities to stop.
And turn away from the distractions of life, if even for a moment.
And say thanks.