Anyone hungry yet? If not, it’s time to run a few extra laps around the block to work up that appetite because it’s almost Thanksgiving. The big meal has been a tradition on this soil for nearly 400 years. The Pilgrims and the Native Americans started it back in 1621 and we have been giving thanks and eating ever since. Those early settlers thanked God for rain and celebrated the harvest. The blessings we claim around the table today probably have very little to do with the growth of corn and beans. We still have very meaningful things to thank God for in 2014, they’re just different.
It was another 240 years after that first Thanksgiving before it was officially declared an American holiday. I suppose that means that in the early years, not everyone celebrated it on the same day. There wasn’t a designated day off. They were thankful whenever their crops came in, they ate a big meal, and they went back to work.
It didn’t become an official American holiday until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln made that declaration. You know what else was happening in 1863? The American Civil War. The images that come to mind at the mention of the Civil War era are, well, of war. The loud bang of muskets being fired. The bloody sight of makeshift hospitals and wounds dressed with improvised bandages. The sour sense of disease and dysentery. Horseback riding soldiers wearing long uniform coats threadbare and festooned with rows of brass buttons, often with holes from where some the tarnished buttons had long gone missing. The smell of entire towns burning.
It’s not exactly the atmosphere we find ourselves in on Thanksgiving today. We have the aroma of basted turkey to tease us and the taste of macaroni and cheese to comfort us. We laugh and clap at jumbo sized helium-filled balloon characters floating by Central Park followed by the Radio City Rockettes kick line at Herald Square. And football. We can’t forget all the football. We have a lot to be thankful for.
What do you think Lincoln was thinking when in the midst of war he declared a national holiday for the purpose of being thankful? For what exactly was he thankful? What do you think he wanted to encourage the nation that was at war with itself to be thankful for? I can understand the need for a holiday in the middle of a war. A holiday could be a tactic to rally the troops and bolster support on the home front. But a thanksgiving one?
Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation reads, “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy…” It closes with, “…fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it…”
It seems to me that Lincoln was thankful that there would be survivors of people and land, and thankful that God deals not only in judgment, but also in mercy with regard to war. His words also seem to bear confidence and thankfulness in the power of the Almighty God to make it right in the end. Could Lincoln have been thankful that God didn’t stop the war from ever happening in the first place and allowed it to go on for a greater purpose, acknowledging God’s ultimate power and control?
I don’t suppose we can know the answer to that this side of heaven, but here’s what I do know. If we measure our blessings from God based only on the good things we do and the things we get right, then we miss the whole point of Jesus’ life and death on the cross. All of us are still going to mess up, get it wrong, start wars with neighbors, support the wrong cause, hurt other people, and maybe even leave a few things smoldering in our wake. Jesus accepted God’s anger and judgment for what we do wrong and it killed him. God’s greater purpose and ultimate power brought Jesus back to life, and in mercy gives us the blessings for what Jesus did right. The Almighty God will make it right if we let Him. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). That’s more than a plateful to be thankful for and it’s what I’ll be feasting on this Thanksgiving. Care to join me?
This was originally posted November 27, 2014 on The Press and Standard's website: