Thanksgiving Day represents an anomaly in secularist Canada which presents Christians with unique missional opportunities. Long celebrated as an official holiday in Canada, the date for Thanksgiving was not fixed until January 31, 1957 when Vincent Massey, the Governor General of Canada, called for “a Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed—to be observed on the second Monday in October.” We’re quickly reminded that Canada is no longer what it once was. Given today’s prevailing secularity, it’s hard to imagine the current Governor General Julie Payette making any kind of official reference to “Almighty God.”
Notwithstanding a growing rejection of God, are Canadians still grateful? Westerners are often surprised to discover that gratitude is not universally celebrated. Because Aristotle’s magnanimous man was proud to give and embarrassed to receive, gratitude was at best an inferior virtue. In traditional Japanese cultures organized along hierarchical lines, the reception of a gift implied indebtedness (the common word for “thank you” in Japanese (arigato) means literally “how dreadful”). In share cultures, such as those of the Inuit people, a hunter who gave seal meat to others might be congratulated for his success, but he would never be thanked because it was understood that the seal belonged to everyone.
As is the case in most Western countries, gratitude remains a civic virtue in Canada. Regardless of religious affiliation, Canadian parents generally insist that their children learn to say, “thank you.” The expectation of gratitude is so high, cultural anthropologists indicate, that if a gift is received without the recipient expressing gratitude social equilibrium in conversational routines can be distorted so as to provoke anger. Gratitude can even be a deterrent for certain unwelcome behaviors as in “Thank you for not smoking.” By all accounts, gratitude is not losing any currency in Canada.
How does Scripture present gratitude? How is gratitude understood by secularists? What missional opportunities does Thanksgiving Day present for Canadian Christians? Through hospitality and shared meals, Christians can point others to the Giver of life itself, and to his Son, life’s Redeemer.
Gratitude is Celebrated in Scripture
It is uncontested logic for Christians that gifts presuppose a giver, and that givers should be thanked. Christians understand that humans are creatures, dependent for breath itself on the Lord. Already in the Old Testament, Israel was instructed to give “thanksgiving sacrifices” (Lev. 7:11-15), the most common subcategory of “peace offerings” (see Lev. 3). Thanksgiving sacrifices were offered for a whole host of reasons including deliverance from enemies (e.g., Ps. 56:12) and recovery from illness (e.g., Ps. 116:17). Alongside of tithe and first-fruit offerings, these sacrifices were understood as return tokens for the Lord’s provision of life and its necessities. Moreover, Israel celebrated annual festivals such as the Feast of Tabernacles at harvest time not simply to recall God’s presence with her in the wilderness (Lev. 23:39-43) but to acknowledge him as the provider of life (Deut. 16:11-15).
Gratitude also features prominently in the New Testament. There is a remarkable story narrated in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus cleanses ten lepers (17:11-19). Nine of the lepers, upon discovering their restoration, obey Jesus and report to the priest for inspection. One of them, a Samaritan, returns to Jesus, throws himself at his feet and thanks him. As a gospel writer, Luke is particularly sensitive to space. For the other nine lepers, who were remote from Jesus when they were cleansed, the distance is never bridged. The thankful one, however, finds himself close to Jesus, and to him Jesus says (v.19), “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
Especially the apostle Paul summons gratitude and often in categorical ways, as in “always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph.5:20). Paul cannot conceive of believers living in mode other than gratitude, the great incentive for which is the grace of God in Christ. Interestingly, the Greek word charis can refer either to the gift (grace) or the return (gratitude) and not surprisingly the apostle Paul often uses the term in wordplays, as in 1 Corinthians 1:3, “I give thanks (eucharistia) to my God always for you because of the grace (charis) of God that was given you in Christ Jesus.”
We are dependent on God not simply for creation, but for redemption, not simply for birth, but for rebirth. Those who experience the grace of Christ in being awakened from spiritual death extend it forward in gratitude. Christ the Giver in a person releases him to give. Gratitude defines the believer and motivates her for renewed worship and obedience (Heb.12:28).
Gratitude is Recast by Some Secularists
The logic about gifts and gratitude that Christians embrace is contested by secularists from two different quarters. Decades ago the prodigious postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida argued vociferously that gratitude nullifies gifts by re-inscribing commerce into gift-giving. Because gifts are to be given without expectation of return, Derrida insisted, the return of gratitude poisons the gift. Before Derrida, Nietzsche had of course depicted gratitude as the revenge of the weak, a chance for have-nots to pay back those who have. Scripture, however, presents the return of gratitude not as payment (which terminates a relationship) but as a token of love (which perpetuates a relationship).
More recently, atheistic philosopher Robert C. Solomon has probed the question, to whom should an atheist feel cosmic gratitude? In answering the question, Solomon argues that gratitude should be recast as a philosophical emotion rather than an interpersonal gesture. Once gratitude is redefined in this way, one can be thankful even in scenarios where there is no giver. Here is a way for atheists to celebrate Thanksgiving Day—namely, through an awareness of how much of one’s life is beyond one’s control.
Solomon’s recasting of gratitude may simply be a manifestation of self-deception. Most recognize intuitively that one receives gifts in life for which a giver should be thanked. One thinks of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s aphorism cited by Chesterton, “The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.” This captured by Chesterton elsewhere: “Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy CW 1:258)
Gratitude as a Doorway to the Gospel
Reflection on the gift of life itself opens the door the gospel. On account of a previous abortion, Dorothy Day had resigned herself to the impossibility of children and at a moment in her life when religion did not interest her in the least, she gave birth to a daughter. The immense joy of this gift occasioned a probing question for Day, “To whom should I give thanks?” It was the impulse to thank Someone that played a part in Day’s conversion.
Much has been written recently about the art of neighbouring and the ministry of hospitality. Opening one’s home to a neighbour or friend on Thanksgiving Day provides us a unique opportunity to talk not simply about reasons for gratitude, but about the one to whom we should be grateful. If our friends and neighbours can enumerate gifts in their life for which they are thankful, to whom can they direct their gratitude? Here is an opportunity for believers to compile, together with unchurched friends, a list of reasons for gratitude and then offer a prayer of thanks to the Lord.
Gifts are given by lovers, and the gift of life is conferred by the Lover of humanity. What does the Lover of humanity do when he sees the brokenness, the hurt, the hatred, the trauma? He sends his Son to take that brokenness upon himself, pay for our offences, and rise three days later to launch a new creation which one day, when the Son returns, will be free of evil itself. “Thanks be to God,” we exclaim with Paul, “for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15).