American traditions of Thanksgiving are generally associated with Puritan harvest feasts in early colonial times, and particularly with the one in October 1621, when Chief Massasoit and about 90 other Native American men joined slightly more than 50 European immigrants at Plymouth Colony, in today’s Massachusetts, for a communal meal.
Abraham Lincoln’s formal proclamation of a late-November “Day of Thanksgiving and Praise” came just 150 years ago, in 1863. However, religious festivals of thanksgiving associated with the agricultural cycle, thanking God for a bounteous harvest — essential to life through the winter — are much more ancient and universal, and can be found in most religious traditions of the world.
In ancient agrarian societies, where survival ultimately depended on rain and on the fertility cycles of local plants and animals, a failed harvest could swiftly bring widespread disaster and death. Accordingly, a bountiful harvest was received with gratitude.
The sacrifices and festivals of ancient Israel were likewise fundamentally linked to the annual seasons of planting and reaping. One of their sacrifices was actually called the “thanksgiving” (Hebrew “todah”). As described in Leviticus 7:11-15, the thanksgiving offering was an entire meal, including fried cakes, bread and meat. Furthermore, it was commanded that “the flesh of the sacrifice of the peace offerings for thanksgiving shall be eaten the same day that it is offered.” That is, the ancient Israelite thanksgiving sacrifice was a sacred feast, a meal in which the food offerings were symbolically shared with God but were literally eaten by the sacrificer. In ancient Israel, such a “holiday feast” — as we now describe it — was actually a “holy-day feast.”
One of the fundamental psalms sung by the Levite choir each day at the temple was “O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures forever” (Psalms 106, 107, 118, 136, 138; 1 Chronicles 16:7, 34, 23:30; 2 Chronicles 5:13, 7:6; Nehemiah 12:8). One could enter the Israelite temple only if one “entered the gates with thanksgiving” (Psalms 100:4, 95:2). Psalm 50 describes the characteristics of the “thanksgiving sacrifice” (50:15): “he who offers thanksgiving (Hebrew “todah”) glorifies me” (50:23; cf. Psalm 116:17).
When Jeremiah prophesied of the future restoration of Jerusalem and its temple, which was to come following the Babylonian captivity, he predicted that the returning Jews would “bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:26) and singing “songs of thanksgiving” (Jeremiah 30:19). Jeremiah likewise prophesied that in Jerusalem should again be heard “the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride . . . as they bring the thanksgiving sacrifice (Hebrew “todah”) into the House of the Lord” (Jeremiah 33:11).
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is twice described as giving thanks in the context of a sacred meal. At the feeding of the 5,000, he took the loaves and fish and, “having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds” (Matthew 15:36; Mark 8:6; John 6:11).
In the old Israelite thanksgiving sacrifice, the people were to bring food to the temple and give it to the priests, who would then offer it to God. Now, in a paradoxical reversal of the old order, Christ, as God incarnate, brings the food, offers thanks and gives it to his apostle-priests who then offer it to the people. The old order of the thanksgiving offering is thus reversed.
The same reversal of roles is found at the Last Supper, where, at the Passover dinner, Jesus gives thanks and shares a sacred meal with his apostles (Matthew 26:37; Mark 14:23; Luke 22:17, 19; 1 Corinthians 11:24). Christ’s atoning sacrifice has thus become a “thanksgiving offering.”
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