The celebration of Thanksgiving naturally lends itself to being understood by Christians through a Christocentric, or, more to it, Eucharistic lens. The reason for this stems from the straightforward linguistic connection, the English eucharist having its roots in the Greek eucharisteó, meaning to be thankful for or give thanks. For the Christian, then, the celebration of Thanksgiving ought to immediately prompt an intuitive connection with the celebration of the Eucharist. The aesthetics alone get us much of the way there, the entire celebration revolving around the joyful preparation and consumption of food, in the presence of those we love most. The connections between the celebration of Thanksgiving today and that of the first Eucharist by Our Lord and his closest disciples is readily apparent. The disciples we are told had sought the Master’s directions for where to procure the appropriate accommodations and prepare the Passover meal (Mt. 26:16). When the moment was right, Our Lord took what had already been a liturgical meal and elevated it even further; fulfilling what had been foreshadowed by the Passover by giving Himself to His disciples under the appearances of bread and wine. Because of this the best thing we can do to celebrate Thanksgiving is, of course, go to Mass. In this way the celebration in the home is transfigured beforehand, as it were, if we consciously approach the rest of our day in a liturgical frame of mind.
That said, the Church does give us the tools to make the connection more overt and robust so that, in a certain way, as the Passover foreshadowed the Eucharist, our Thanksgiving celebrations might reflect and lead to a deeper understanding of the meaning of the gift given to us in the Eucharist. I am here making reference to the “Extended Thanksgiving Table Blessing” that appears in the USCCB’s Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers. As a side note, this text is a veritable treasure trove of riches that the Church has provided for us in order to facilitate the exercise of our participation in the priestly office bestowed upon us at Baptism within our homes and so transform the lives of our families into the domestic church’s called for by the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, 11). The text provides a shorter form of the blessing that could be used as a prayer before meals, but the longer version is structured as a small liturgical celebration, focused as are many of the blessings contained in the text on the Liturgy of the Word.
The scriptural passage given in the text comes from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (3:12-17). Careful attention to this text has the potential to Christify our Thanksgiving celebrations and in this way make them more Eucharistic. The most straightforward reason for the selection of the text comes from the author’s various uses of the language of thanksgiving. For instance, in verse 15 appears the straightforward admonishment: “And be thankful,” serving as a sort of marker just after the midway point of the passage of what the main thrust of the passage is. The main message, then, appears in the concluding verse (v. 17), which reads: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” There are two important elements to draw out here, the first providing the scriptural basis for the second liturgical one. First, it is important to note that the words “thankful” and “giving thanks” are rooted in the same Greek word mentioned at the outset, eucharisteó. This is also the basis of the word used by Paul to describe the action of Our Lord at the Last Supper. There Paul writes that Jesus “took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks (eucharistēsas), he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (1 Cor 11:24). The initial scriptural basis, then, makes an immediate connection to the Eucharist and therefore when we read this passage this connection ought to come to mind. However, we can go a step further to make the liturgical connection even more robust. In the last line of the passage noted above, Paul exhorts his readers to do everything that they do “in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Upon hitting our ears these words ought to prompt our recollection of the Concluding Doxology of the Eucharistic Prayers of the Mass, which is itself very closely connected to Colossians 1:17-20: “Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever.”
To this we respond, Amen, so be it, it is true! Of course, later on as we receive the Eucharist, the priest elevates the sacred species before us once again and we will give the same response to the words, “the Body of Christ,” Amen, I believe, it is true! On first thought we may consider that our Amen is an acknowledgement of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and rightly so. But in the early 5th century, Augustine reminded his parishioners that their, and our, Amen has an additional significance. He told them, “It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent. What you hear, you see, is The body of Christ, and you answer, Amen. So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make that Amen true” (Sermon 272). Augustine’s message here is one which the Church has never ceased to remind us of down through the ages, that when we receive the Eucharist a sort of reverse digestion takes place, it is not we who consume Christ, but it is Christ who consumes us in order to permeate the whole of our life and so conform us completely to Him.
Our transformation into other Christs, i.e., Christians, demands that we allow every facet of our existence to be transfigured so that St. Paul’s statement might become our own: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:19-20). For the Fathers of the Church down through St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the principal ways we do this is through the cultivation of the virtues, which denotes participation in the life of Christ, the virtue and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24), their several instantiations manifesting the life of Christ within us to the world.
This is precisely what Aquinas exegetes from the passage included in the “Thanksgiving Table Blessing.” The opening words of this passage, “put on,” prompt Aquinas to make a ready connection to Romans chapter 13. Both passages speak of leaving the life of sin behind for the life of grace in Jesus Christ (see Col 3:1-11). And thus Aquinas writes that here we are being told by Paul to put on the very same things he had written about in his Letter to the Romans, i.e., the armor of light (Rom 13:12). Said differently, to clothe ourselves with the One Who is the Light of the world, Jesus Christ (Jn. 8:12). Aquinas writes that we put on the armor of light “when our exterior actions are made pleasing by the virtues” (Commentary on Colossians, Ch. 3, L 3.158). He then goes on to comment on the several virtues named in the passage, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness (Col 3:12-13). The passage then exhorts us above all, to “put on love, that is, the bond of perfection” and to “let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one Body” before calling us the first time to “be thankful” (Col 3:14-15). Within Aquinas’s system this couldn’t make more sense, for it is the virtues that perfect the powers of the soul, allowing them to act in peaceful concert with one another and so overcome the chaos and warring cause by vice and sin in the soul. Moreover, the perfection of the virtues comes from the gift of divine love which unites us to God. Thus, Aquinas writes that Paul exhorts us to above all put on love because while “all the virtues perfect man…love unites them to each other and makes them permanent; and this is why it is said to bind. Or, it is said to bind because it is the bond of its very nature, for love unties the beloved to the lover: I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love (Hos 11:4)” (Commentary on Colossians, Ch. 3, L 3.163).
With the help of Aquinas we can see, then, that by making the eucharistic terminology used in 1 Corinthians central to the passage and surrounding it with the language of virtue, what Paul is doing in Colossians is analogous to what is done by John in his Gospel. John’s Gospel is the only one of the four to not include the institution narrative at the Last Supper. Instead, what we find in John’s Gospel is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples (Jn 13:1-20), modeling, as it were, what ought to be the effect of being consumed by Him in the Eucharist, i.e., a life of self-sacrificing love characterized by the imitation of his virtues. The “Thanksgiving Table Blessing” parallels this movement which we also experience at the celebration of the Mass. After the reading a prayer is offered, and next those gathered are asked to offer their prayers of thanksgiving, paralleling the prayers of the faithful. Finally, the concluding prayer reads: “For all that we have spoken and for all that we keep in our hearts, accept our thanksgiving on this day. Keep us ever mindful of those who lack the necessities of life and make us generous in sharing all that we have. We pray and give thanks through Jesus Christ our Lord.” In this blessing, we are therefore likewise sent out as at the end of Mass to proclaim the Gospel by our lives, first and foremost caring for those in need. And in this way, the “Thanksgiving Table Blessing” parallels John’s Gospel, for here we do not receive the Eucharist, but are as to become Eucharist for the life of the world in Thanksgiving for all that we have received from our God.
Your servant in Christ,
N. B. For those who do not have a copy of Catholic Household Blessings and Prayer, the “Extended Thanksgiving Table Blessing” can be found here.