Make Thanksgiving Great Again
Sacramental Turkey Meals and the Over-realized Eschatology of Christmas Decorations
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas… before Thanksgiving. According to a recent survey, 43% of Americans decorate for Christmas by mid-November while an additional 19% decorate in the days just before Thanksgiving. In other words, almost two-thirds of Americans—62%—decorate for the later holiday before the former has come and gone.
You can call me “old school,” a “traditionalist” or even “pedantic.” Just don’t call me “Scrooge” when I joyfully decline to decorate for Christmas until after Thanksgiving has passed. It’s not that I have anything against Christmas. Rather, I have a deep love for Thanksgiving that compels me never to mix it with Christmas trappings. I say that as a concession, not a command. You can have your Christmas lights and eat your turkey too (if you like). But let us all endeavor to rediscover the uniqueness of the holiday. Let’s make Thanksgiving great again.
Thanksgiving Is Uniquely Christian
G.K. Chesterton said, “[Pagans] could make an alternative to Christmas,” but
They could not… make a substitute for Thanksgiving Day. For half of them are pessimists who say they have nothing to be thankful for; and the other half are atheists who have nobody to thank.
The leech-like nature of a secularized sentimentality can easily attach itself to the holiday of Christmas. This is not so with Thanksgiving, for there is an essentially Christian quality to gratitude.
Implicit in the logic of Thanksgiving is the notion of a Creator to whom we are grateful. Simply put, nobody is ever only thankful for X; they must also be thankful to Y. It won’t suffice to stop at giving thanks to the people in your life, for example, since they are not the product of their own making. And if you trace the line of gratitude back far enough, you will bump into the God from whose fullness we have all received grace upon grace. Thanksgiving is a Christian act.
In addition to recognizing the One who deserves our gratitude, Thanksgiving also provides us with “edible pictures” of the heart and mission of God.
The Food: Thanksgiving as a Picture of God’s Grace
Most holidays involve food. What is July 4th without a cookout, or Christmas without cookies? With Thanksgiving, however, the food is literally the centerpiece. This has led many to mock Thanksgiving as some kind of Day of Gluttony accompanied by worn-out jokes about overeating or the need to exercise. Yet for those with eyes to see and tongues to taste, the overabundance of food is a picture of the superabundant grace of a God who gives immeasurably more than all we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20).
Practically speaking, this means it is almost impossible for your Thanksgiving spread to have too much meat, too much dessert, too much coffee or too much of that sweet potato casserole with the buttery-brown sugar pecans on top (Get thee behind me, Marshmallows). Christ didn’t meet our deep need for him with a teaspoon of grace, so why should we celebrate that grace with a moderate slice of pie? It’s almost sacrilegious.
The Table: Thanksgiving as a Picture of Christ’s Victory
Consider when and where the Thanksgiving table is spread, namely, in “the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5). This verse describes the glory of a victory feast in a world still filled with sorrow. It refers to the hopeful annunciation that Christ has won the victory over sin and death, a victory we can enjoy even in the shadow of these ever-present threats.\
And what better way is there to declare the power of God—especially in these turbulent and troubled times—than to believe God’s promises so deeply that we feast together? This is what Thanksgiving does par excellence: It declares that we believe the darkness of the world cannot overcome God’s marvelous light, and it shows the world that we are not fearful of scarcity when standing on the rock of God’s provision. In this way Thanksgiving transforms every forkful of food into an act of faith that says,
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life—and here is the stuffing to prove it.
The Feast: Thanksgiving as Picture of Our Salvation
When the prophet Isaiah foretold the salvation of God’s people, he described a feast of well-marbled beef and well-aged wine (Isaiah 25:6). I dare say that, were we called upon to describe salvation, most of us would choose something far more ethereal and much more boring (like harps and clouds and choir robes). Yet Isaiah knew that the final moment of our salvation is an eternal wedding party (Revelation 19:7-9).
It is not an accident, then, that Christ’s first miracle occurred at a wedding banquet and consisted in turning six large vats of water into a top-notch vintage (John 2:6-11). The hope of the redeemed is nothing less than the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, where we will dine and drink and dance forever in the company of the One who is the Bread of Life, the Living Water and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Thanksgiving pictures this final hope, inviting us to feast in the present as people who know that our pasts are forgiven and our futures are secure in Christ. It is a foretaste of even better things to come, calling us to look forward to the day when God himself will dwell with us, and he will be our God. He will replace sorrow with joy. He will swallow up death with life. And the darkness of our former state, wherein we “did not honor God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21), will be overcome by the glory of his light and we shall step out into the eternal day of thanksgiving (cf. Revelation 21:1-27).
This article originally published on Nov. 16, 2017.
My good friend Joe Holland was the inspiration for this section’s title.
The Business Journals, “43% of Christmas Consumers Begin Decorating Before Thanksgiving Week,” October 22, 2015. https://www.bizjournals.com/prnewswire/press_releases/2015/10/22/CL36564. Accessed November 14, 2017.
G.K. Chesterton, “ Broadcast to the US, Dec 25 1931,” reprinted in John Sullivan, Chesterton Continued: A bibliographical Supplement (University of London Press, 1968).
To be sure, such celebrations are all form without substance, but the popularity of Christmas celebrations continues unabated. Honest agnostics have acknowledged as much. Consider, for example, the reflections of noted philosopher Karl Popper: “When I look at what I call the gift of life, I feel a gratitude which is in tune with some religious ideas of God…. I don’t know whether God exists or not… [but] I would be glad if God were to exist, to be able to concentrate my feeling of gratitude on some sort of person to whom one would be grateful. This is a wonderful world in spite of the mess that bad philosophers and bad theologians have made of it. They are to be blamed for many wars and for much cruelty.” Karl Popper, “Karl Popper on God: interview with Edward Zerin (1969/1998)” published in After the Open Society, 49, 51.
I have adapted this idea from a tweet by Ray Ortlund that originally said, “One way to live prophetic Christian lives in these angry, tense days is to believe God’s promises so much that we laugh together a lot.” First published on February 24, 2017. https://twitter.com/rayortlund/status/835335118319456256. Accessed November 14, 2017.
The stones vats used for Jewish rites of purifications are known to be somewhere between 20 and 30 gallons each. This means Jesus produced between 120 and 180 gallons of “fine wine” (John 2:10, CSB), or somewhere between 600 to 900 modern-sized wine bottles.
Originally Posted on Intersect Project.org