When we grow accustomed to things, words for example, we can forget that they have an actual meaning. Of course, language changes and usages change (I can think of at least five different ways to use the word “shotgun” right now), but we can find ourselves in a quandary when we grow so accustomed to a word that we begin to use it somewhat flippantly or in vain.
When we talk about a holiday called “Thanksgiving,” we use the word as a proper noun. Note, after all, the capital at the front of the word. However, that proper noun is just a really important regular noun, and that regular noun refers to a verb. That is, thanksgiving is the act of giving thanks.
Funny thing about verbs is that they are always done by something (we call that a “subject”), and often they are done to something (we call that an “object”).
So when we talk about Thanksgiving, we shouldn’t be using the word to create a general impression of feel-goodery to contribute to a disembodied aura of gladness when we have things that we might otherwise not.
The perceptive reader will note, yea verily may object, that thankfulness or the act of giving thanks will often if not always address the possession of a thing one did not have previously, or might not have had in different circumstances. May the perceptive reader be awarded an extra turkey leg!
The problem is not that we’re focused on things. “Thing” is a mighty broad category, much deeper than a well and broader than a church door, and this is not the place for a soliloquy on things. Salvation in Christ Jesus is a thing that Scripture speaks to Christians having. Grace is a thing (though not a substance to be consumed), for Scripture speaks of it being given.
Instead, the cultural predicament is that we forget that when we find ourselves in the act of giving thanks, we must give that thanks to something or someone. To give it to something seems nothing less than silly, so we must give it to someone.
Colossians 1:12 speaks of Christians as being qualified to inherit what belongs to the saints, and that this a reason to return thanks to the Father. The Christian receives a thing, qualification for eternal reward, and by implication, we understand that the Christian would not receive this thing without the direct action of God the Father. We have a thing that we would not have otherwise. Yet, the Colossians are not to exude a general good spirit about the matter. Instead, they express this gratefulness to God the Father. They recognize that they received something because of someone else’s action: God’s.
To say it in a strange but strong way: This that I have, I would not have without you.
Many instances of thanksgiving are somewhat general in Scripture. Perhaps not surprisingly the idea of thanksgiving receives mention in the Psalms more than any other book of Scripture. However, the generality of its use proclaims the totality of its scope. What all do we have that is not from the hand of God? Colossians 1:15-20 claims that Jesus holds all of creation together before it goes on to speak of the believers’ reconciliation to God. Before one can be reconciled, one does actually have to exist and do so continually, after all. We return thanks to God for our reconciliation, and we return thanks to him because we actually are a thing that exists in order to be reconciled.
When we celebrate this season, as followers of the crucified and living Savior, we do so recognizing that thanksgiving is not an abstract concept to be tossed about lightly. Good jokes are to be tossed about lightly, but not thanksgiving. Instead, it is a concrete thing for which we intentionally recognize the living God. We say, “Without your intentional act to create, I would not be. Without your word revealed, I would not know you or of you. Without you speaking the truth to me, I would be deceived. Without your action determination to save me, I would be lost to judgment. Without your provision of food, I would be hungry.”
To have a day of thanksgiving requires one to act in humility. God receives worship and praise for what he has done in the past and promised to do in the future. It intentionally declares that the Christian is not all that God is.