Sometimes, we Americans think we invented the Day of Thanksgiving. The truth is, however, that Thanksgiving as a day dates plainly back to our Hebrew forebears. It is a day all about rituals that teaches us about giving thanks. Sometimes, modern folk see ritual as a negative word. Yet the truth is that ritual habitually helps us assimilate those meanings of our common life that are bigger than the words we use to explain them. This is why ritual is so important in life. Ritual relates the things we hold dear, although many of us could not articulate why these things are so important. Thanksgiving is mere a day, yet it reminds us about the gratitude we can express each and every day of our lives.
One of the Bible’s greatest history lessons relates Yahweh weaving certain rituals into the fabric of the Hebrew community’s life. For one example we can consider the ritual preparation for Passover (Exodus 12). There we find detailed instructions on how, when, and where to eat the Passover meal. Moreover, these instructions also yield theological meaning. Likewise, in a lesson for Thanksgiving Day, Yahweh instructs the people of Israel concerning other rituals that continue to remind them that they are not like other peoples. Rather, they are a people, constituted by God, to be a just society that bears in mind the less fortunate. In addition, they are a community that offers its thanksgiving to God (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)
Moses reminds the people what they are to do when they have entered the land of promise. Not only will they possess it and settle it; they are also to offer “the first of all the fruit of the ground.” Why? By offering their first fruits to God they remind themselves that the land they have settled and possess was not by their own doing. Instead, it is a gift from Yahweh. It is a divine expression of the grace in which they dwell. Nothing they have done, nothing they do or will do will change the gifted nature of God’s bequest to them. Rather, the proper response of the people is clearly not self-congratulations—the appropriate response is nothing other than a human expression of thanksgiving to God Almighty. In fact, these texts remind us that Yahweh and Moses leave nothing to chance. The manner of the collection and the persons who are responsible for the gathering of the gifts are quite explicit. The offering commemorates “that I [or we] have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”
Along with the gift is a reminder of why this gift of land is important. This is the people’s response: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous . . . ” The response ends, appropriately enough, with these words: “The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm . . . and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
When a “Ministerial Alliance” asks me to preach the ecumenical “Community Thanksgiving Service” as I have often been asked to do over the years, I always do it with “fear and trembling.” After all, what does the preacher say to people after he or she says, “We ought to all be more thankful”? DUH?
When the people bring their first fruits to the Lord, they do so as a token sign and symbol of the lavish gifts that God has poured out on their community. As people of faith, these Hebrews worship a generous and benevolent God. Not only this, but this same God expects this community to likewise live lives that reflect the generous and benevolent God they worship. In other words, Yahweh, through Moses’ mouth and speech, teaches the people the fine art of generosity toward others. Can we in this rich land of our do less?