By James Tonkowich
The Institute on Religion and Democracy

The Feast of Tabernacles is the great Old Testament harvest feast. The instructions about Tabernacles in Deuteronomy contain one of my favorite commandments in the Bible, “Be joyful at your Feast” (Deuteronomy 16:14).

The passage does not seem to allow any exceptions. God’s people were to gather each year—regardless of how good or bad the harvest (their economy) happened to be—and were commanded to feast and be joyful as they reflected on the goodness of God toward them.

That pretty much sums up my plan for Thanksgiving Day. We have church at ten and then in the afternoon we join family and friends for what promises to be an amazing feast on a lovely autumn day.

The sixteenth century reformer, John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion wrote:

The contemplation of God’s goodness in his creation will lead us to thankfulness and trust. …It is to recognize that God has destined all things for our good and salvation but at the same time to feel his power and grace in ourselves and in the great benefits he has conferred upon us, and so bestir ourselves to trust, invoke, praise, and love him. (2.14.22)

“God’s goodness in his creation” includes not only the natural world, but all we lawfully make of the natural world—our homes, cars, clothes, cities. And it includes the food we eat.

God in his wisdom made us creatures who need to eat several times a day. Perhaps it was because food preparation and eating remind us of our physicality. Human embodiment is not a handicap or a curse. It is the nature with which a loving Creator made us. From that thought it is only a short step to the Incarnation. God too in the first advent of the Son took on human physicality. Our bodies and our need for food are reasons for gratitude.

Preparing and eating food also reminds us of our dependence. We depend on God who, Calvin goes on to say, “created all things for man’s sake.” We depend on the Earth that yields us its fruit. We depend on farmers, processors, truckers, stockers, checkers, baggers, and chefs. These and others are our benefactors. We depend on their labor and owe thanks to our benefactors and to our God who supplies them.

Thomas Aquinas reasoned in his Summa Theologica that, “a debt of gratitude is a moral debt required by virtue. Now a thing is a sin from the fact of its being contrary to virtue. Wherefore it is evident that every ingratitude is a sin.”

Modern research indicates that the ancient Christian idea that sin is its own punishment and virtue is its own reward is particularly true when it comes to giving thanks. Psychologists Robert A. Emmons, University of California, Davis and Michael E. McCullough, University of Miami have studied gratitude. Their findings include:

Young adults who practiced daily gratitude exercises “reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy.”

“Children who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and their families.”

“Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism, and lower levels of depression and stress.” At the same time they “do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life.”

“Grateful individuals place less importance on material goods; they are less likely to judge their own and others’ success in terms of possessions accumulated; they are less envious of others; and are more likely to share their possessions with others relative to less grateful persons.”

“Be joyful at your Feast” and give thanks are God’s invitation to good health and emotional well-being as well as spiritual maturity.

We live in a world of trouble and only a fool or someone trying to sell us something would deny it. Yet God is sovereign, Christ died and is risen, and, particularly in this country, we enjoy bounty that no one in any other era of history ever dreamed. And that is all in addition to Irving Berlin’s reminder that even when we look at what we lack, we “got the sun in the morning and the moon at night,” God’s glorious creation all around us.

In a sermon St. Augustine told his congregation, “Delight in him from whom you have received everything that delights you.” “Delight,” “be joyful,” “give thanks,” “feast”—these are central to Christian living even in a world of trouble.

May God bless you this Thanksgiving as you count your blessings and rejoice.

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