I was recently speaking to a student of mine, an Augustinian Recollect friar from Mexico, about the American feast of Thanksgiving. He remarked what a truly healthy part of our culture it is. For all that is wrong with our world, a feast of family and thanks is pretty nice.
In fact, we can learn a lot about the Mass by reflecting on this feast.
First, the Mass is Thanksgiving. That, of course, is precisely what Eucharist means in Greek, and it is one of the earliest names of the Mass. In the second century, for example, here is how St. Justin Martyr described the Mass: the priest “gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things [i.e., our own good works, salvation, and the bread and wine] at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying, Amen.” And then again, the presider “offers prayers and thanksgiving, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given.”
To receive the Eucharist is to receive the thanksgiving, the “thanksgiving-ed” bread and wine. This is all the more true because, “the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
The Eucharist is a meal of Thanksgiving.
In fact, this is what “sacrifice” means in Catholic theology, and in the Bible. We get so focused on child sacrifice that we miss the way it works in the Bible. In the Old Testament, there are “holocausts,” which are completely burned. But most kind of sacrifices are not burned up, they are eaten. The point of sacrifice is not the destruction, but the ritual action.
Our American Thanksgiving, in fact, is remarkably parallel to the most important sacrifice of the Old Testament, the Passover lamb. “They shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it. And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roasted with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. . . . And you shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; and that which remains of it until the morning you shall burn with fire” (Exodus 12:7-10).
The Passover Lamb is a sacrifice, the truest sacrifice – the one, in fact, that Jesus connects with his own death on the Cross – not because it is destroyed, but because it is received from God, and offered in thanksgiving to God. The thanksgiving turkey, in fact, is a sacrifice in the truest sense, if we are practicing Thanksgiving as a feast of thanks to God.
“A sacrifice,” says Augustine, “is the visible sacrament or sacred sign of an invisible sacrifice. . . . He does not desire the sacrifice of a slaughtered beast, but he desires the sacrifice of a contrite heart. Thus, that sacrifice which he says God does not wish, is the symbol of the sacrifice which God does wish. God does not wish sacrifices in the sense in which foolish people think He wishes them, namely, to gratify His own pleasure. . . . But he goes on to mention what these signify: ‘Offer unto God the sacrifice of praise.’ . . . God does not requires these sacrifices for their own sakes; He does require the sacrifices which they symbolize.”
What makes the Lamb, the turkey, or even Jesus himself a true sacrifice is that it is a sign, a physical manifestation, of our hearts turned to God in thanksgiving.
Finally, thanksgiving makes family. We come together around a common table. We share a common meal. And the more heartfelt is our entrance into that meal, the more heartfelt is our entrance into the family gathered there.
After the goofiness of the 1970s and ‘80s, Catholics are loath to say that the Mass is a community meal. But it is! It is just that it is a community meal rooted in the presence of Christ, and Christ’s perfect act of thanksgiving to the Father. Christ makes us true family. In fact, Christ’s body makes us into his body: from the Eucharistic communion is born the communion of the Church.
Do you experience Thanksgiving as a sacrifice of praise? Do you experience the Eucharist that way?