Offerings for Thanksgiving
This Thursday is a feast day, a national holiday. We should not let the religious significance of those words escape us. “Holiday” comes to us from the Old English hāliġdæġ, meaning “holy day” (it also happens to be the Old English word for “Sabbath”). We may think of a holiday merely as a break from work, but it is a day set apart for a particular purpose or observance. “Feast day” likewise is a religious phrase. The Law uses it to describe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths, among other occasions.
The yearly Feast of Thanksgiving is a novel holiday, to be sure. Our observance of it is commanded nowhere in the Scriptures, so no Christian is under obligation to do so. We are at liberty to keep it or not keep it as we will (Rom 14.5-9). But just because we are at liberty regarding Thanksgiving does not mean that the Scriptures have nothing to say about it.
That God approves of feasting and celebration in His name is beyond dispute. There are, of course, the appointed feasts: Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Booths for Israel, and the Lord’s Supper for the Church. Beyond that, we find that God blesses us with a bounty that we are to receive with thanksgiving. “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart,” “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer,” thus “If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (Ps 104.14-15; 1 Tim 4.4-5; 1 Cor 10.30-31).
Our observance of any holiday must be ordered towards God. In Zech 7.1-3, the people of Bethel ask the Lord, “Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” The Lord’s answer begins in Zech 7.4-6: “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?” The Lord was displeased with the people’s fasting and feasting, not because they were novel fasts and feasts (and they were novel), but because they fasted and feasted for themselves rather than for the Lord.
We must take care in our feasting not to give an opportunity to selfish passions. Instead, we must receive our rest and our food with thanksgiving in our hearts to God. This was indeed the original intent of Thanksgiving. Consider President Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation of 1789, in which he declared November 26th of that year to be “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”
We must remember that thanksgiving to God entails sacrifice. The ceremonies of the Law teach us this by making thanksgiving a variety of sacrifice (Lev 7.11-15). Though we no longer offer meat, grain, and oil to the Lord as sacrifice, we find that the spirit of sacrifice persists outside of the Law. At the very least, we are to offer the sacrifice of prayer, as it is written, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God,” and “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Ps 50.23; Col 4.2).
In addition to that, the Scriptures show us that our feasts are an occasion to love our neighbors, as we are commanded, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5.14). Paul’s instructions regarding feasting and abstaining are focused on love of neighbor, as it is written, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding,” and “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up,” and “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (Rom 14.19; 15.2; 1 Cor 10.24). Likewise, God’s answer to the people of Bethel includes this: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech 7.8-10). The prophet Isaiah also shows that holidays are such an occasion for neighbor-love, as it is written, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Is 58.6-7). These are the sacrifices pleasing to God.
This Thanksgiving, celebrate God’s abundant gifts, and find occasion to care for those less fortunate than yourself.