A Verb for Thanksgiving

The effect of standing in the Rockies, or the Himalayas, or of sailing on the vast, open sea is to feel a bit insignificant. As “the Bailout” of the American economy advances, and the numbers mount – to well over a $1.5 trillion committed by the federal government in the past few months, a kind of insignificance can settle in when we consider how measly are our own resources.

Who are you and I in the face of the titans of banking, industry, or government? We’ve never made – or lost – a single billion in our time, nor are we likely to, I dare say. How are we to feel about the mountains of money that are shifting tectonically around us? And should the fact of our own puny bank accounts result in a sense of low self-esteem? And how are we to give thanks on a day like this? Our attention from the serialized bailout is distracted for a moment by the violent and frightening attacks in India. What kind of Thanksgiving is this?

In the church we are sometimes reminded that parts of speech matter. For instance, in American society, today’s feast is a proper noun: Thanksgiving. It is a national holiday that has nothing at all to do with the church’s marking of time, the passage of her year. Our Prayer Book provides readings and a prayer or two for the occasion out of necessity, but the day is not included in the church calendar; the Pilgrims (such as they were) have never counted as saints. But they would have known that in the church thanksgiving is not a noun, but a verb. It is, perhaps, the most fundamental, crucial, foundational of all verbs in the life of the church. Its Greek roots are preserved in the adopted English word that the church now typically uses for the Mass: the Eucharist – which is literally translated, “thanksgiving.”

And the church is meant to be animated by this verb: thanksgiving. We are given life and action in it; we have something to do. We have thanks to offer to God. An old prayer of the church, not too much used these days, put it this way, in talking to God: “…give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days….”

That’s a prayer full of thanksgiving verbs. We still use it when we say Morning and Evening Prayer here daily at Saint Mark’s. And as I utter those words I grew up saying, I wonder how long my life will have to be before the prayer, known as the “General Thanksgiving” finally takes over my heart, my life.

How long before I learn to be unfeignedly thankful to God, when I have gotten so very good at feigning it?

How long before I can more reliably show forth God’s praise not only with my lips but in my life?

How long before I am able, really, to give up myself to God’s service?

And I can hardly even think about walking before God in holiness and righteousness – not even for one day, let alone all my days!

And yet I believe that I can continue to try to adopt thanksgiving in my life as a verb and not a noun. This seems like a simple project, but I know it will not be: to make thanksgiving something I have to offer, not take; something I have to do, not something I merely get to enjoy.

But the more I become a pilgrim of thanksgiving – journeying on that pathway from noun to verb – the more I have the sense that I am surrounded by the astonishing beauty and generosity of God’s creation. It’s the same kind of feeling I had when I was able to glimpse from the foothills the high peaks of the Himalayas.

And it is not the dawning of insignificance you feel when you realize that God has allowed you to wend your way through his marvelous creation; it is sheer gratitude.

(And it’s not a noun that’s needed in the face of the violence we’ve seem in Mumbai these last few hours, it’s the kind of verbs that compel us to give up our lives to God’s service if ever we are to free the world of the scourge of this kind of violence.)

And who knows what the effect will be of all those mountains of bailout cash that are shifting and growing as we try to cope with the economic crisis of our time? Perhaps they will not make us feel insignificant either.

But for now, they are only nouns, these trillions of dollars. And we have a far more important verb to deal with this morning. We have thanksgiving to do. Thanks be to God for such a verb in our lives!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Thanksgiving Day 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 1, 2008 .