While I guess it is, technically speaking, a "secular" holiday, I think that gratitude takes us to the very heart of religious faith. Among other things, I am grateful for the interfaith nature of Thanksgiving. The Gospel Reading for Thanksgiving Day is John 6:25-25.
At the beginning of the sixth chapter of the mystical fourth gospel, Jesus feeds a large crowd of thousands with a couple of fish and five barley loaves. This "feeding of the 5000" is a favorite of my boss, the Rt. Rev. Douglas Fisher, Bishop of Western Massachusetts. So I hear about it all the time.(And I do mean ALL the time!) It is a story found in all four gospels, each with its own tiny little nuanced differences. Only in John’s gospel do the fish and loaves come not from the disciples, but a small boy, suggesting that his willingness to share the lunch his mother packed for him is an integral part of the miracle.
The common thread in all four tellings, however, is that it is so clearly a Eucharistic story. Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives the bread. Those four verbs are meant to trigger the imagination of God’s people from one generation to the next, because in a very real way we re-tell the story of the feeding of the five thousand every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, i.e. "make Thanksgiving."
There is more than enough. There is always room for one more at the Table. In this taking, blessing, breaking and giving we see Jesus for who he really is. We see God for who God really is, the maker of all things, the giver of abundant blessings.
As John tells the story of the feeding of the 5000, it is immediately after this that the crowds try to make him a king. We are reminded of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and the danger of being able to perform such great signs. People often flock to miracle workers, missing the deeper meaning. So Jesus withdraws to the mountain to be still, to be with his Abba in prayer. The disciples get back in their boats and cross to the other side of the lake. That’s when Jesus comes to them, with another sign—walking on the water, and calming the storm as they cry out in fear.
The next day some persistent “groupies” find Jesus and the disciples on the other side of the lake. They want him for the miracles he can do. They want more magic. But Jesus pushes them to go deeper…to look for the true bread, not the bread that perishes. And then when they ask for that true bread, he says “I Am.” I am the bread of life.
Once more, John is teasing us with Eucharistic language; sacramental language. Our culture (not just our so-called secular culture but even, very often, our church culture) has a hard time with this kind of talk. We lack the imagination for it. So we hear people say, “well, it’s just a symbol.” But anyone who says “just” when they talk about symbols doesn’t understand symbols.
Can you imagine anyone saying, “it’s just a wedding ring?” Or it's just the house where we raised our children? Or it's just the church my parents were buried from or where my grandchildren were baptized. It's just silly to use the word "just" when talking about sacramental truths - outward and visible signs that convey something deeper, something more.
Such talk assumes that only literal truth is real. But the facts can never convey the deepest truths of our lives—what we care about, how we love, what we dream of and yearn for. One of the great gifts of our Anglican heritage to the wider Church is our profound respect for mystery and for sacramental language. Water and oil, bread and wine convey profound truths about what is really real. You can touch and taste and smell and see them, and yet what they convey goes deeper—to the heart. Outward signs convey inward, spiritual truths. So Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” And he really means it. It's really true. Week after week we are invited to test that reality by "tasting and seeing."
The great privilege of priestly ministry, of presiding at the Lord's Table, is to take and bless and break and give the Body of Christ to the Body of Christ. Doing that stretches my faith—inviting me to see how the Body of Christ is not just to be discerned as present in the bread, but in the people of God—the Church—that continues to be formed and transformed around that Table: male and female, young and old, gay and straight, traditional and progressive. One Bread. One Body. Taken, blessed, broken and given for the world.
A decade or so ago, I read one of those books that stays with you for a long time: a hard book about Pinochet’s
Chile called Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ, written by William T. Cavanaugh. “Torture,” Cavanaugh writes, “creates victims.” But we might just as well say that fear creates victims. Family strife,
wars on terror, consumer society gone astray all create a society of victims
that desperately search the self-help section of the bookstore looking for easy
answers to profound questions.
In response to that harsh reality we live toward a deeper truth: Eucharist creates witnesses. We gather to tell stories about a boy who opens his lunch box to find a couple of barley loaves and five fish that he is willing to share. We remember how he took the risk of offering them to Jesus. We remember the manna in the desert—daily bread for a people in search of the Promised Land. We point especially to this One who is the Bread of Life—the One who satisfies our hungry hearts and quenches our thirsting souls. The One who takes, blesses, breaks, and gives. In so doing, witnesses are formed—a people who can share the story of God’s love (sometimes with words) to the world.