There is nothing more Orthodox than Thanksgiving. Though the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday are not Orthodox (nor the pumpkin pie), the concept behind it all – giving thanks to God for all He has given us – definitely is. It is on Thanksgiving Day that Orthodox Christians have a chance to help humankind look deeper into itself. If we are to call Thanksgiving a holiday (“holy day”), it must be more than remembering the pilgrims. It must be more than visiting with family and gorging ourselves on a sumptuous feast. Thanksgiving is a state of being, one that we need to cultivate and make perpetual, present every day of our lives.
Thanksgiving defines our Faith
As Orthodox Christians, we should give thanks to God every day, not just once a year. This, in effect, makes every day Thanksgiving Day for us. In the Vespers service, we hear in Psalm 104: “I will sing praises to my God while I have my being”. Likewise, during Orthros/Matins, during the Praises we sing, “Let every breath praise the Lord”. We even make this declaration during the Divine Liturgy itself: “It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee, and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion” (from the Anaphora). Praise and thanksgiving is what we do. It defines who we are as Christians.
Our ability to transcend our base instincts and truly come to know God, is what separates us from every other creature God made. As human beings, we were made in His image and given minds capable of thought, reflection, and growth. Our Lord provided us a way to participate in perfect union with Him. We are the only creatures God created that are both physical and spiritual in nature. As such we can go beyond the physical world in which we live and rise up to God. It is our ability to worship, to devote ourselves to God and love Him as He loves us, that makes us precious in His sight.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t thank God as often as we should. This is why the Church reminds us constantly to do so through the divine services. Thanksgiving literally defines our Faith. It is why the Sacrament of Sacraments is called the Eucharist — from the Greek eucharistia, or thanksgiving.
Why should we thank God?
On Thanksgiving Day, Orthodox Christians have a unique opportunity to show the rest of America what this day is all about. Those who fled religious persecution and landed here understood why this holy day was so special. They celebrated their safe arrival in real communion with one another. They gave thanks to God for all the bountiful gifts with which He blessed them. And so, we should all do the same. This is a day to reflect on the things for which we are grateful. And then take time in prayer to thank God for those things.
But why should we thank Him? Because the life He gave us is sacred. Above all things God has given us, the chief among those is life itself. He created us in His image and likeness. God gave us the breath of life; He is the source of our being and the reason for our existence. In His love, Almighty God created us to commune with Him, and now we can have that kind of life with Him in the Church. So perhaps the better question is: why shouldn’t we thank Him, for our very life and all the blessings within it?
We give thanks through worship
The primary way we, as creatures made in the image of God, can give thanks to our Creator is through worship. Many Orthodox parishes in America celebrate the Divine Liturgy on Thanksgiving morning, to provide the faithful with another opportunity to gather together in communion to thank the Lord for the bountiful blessings he has bestowed on us. If a parish near you offers the Liturgy on Thanksgiving, we highly encourage you to go. What a wonderful way to start out the holy day, by participating in the Eucharistic service!
Should Orthodox Christians fast on Thanksgiving?
For Orthodox Christians who follow the New (Gregorian) Calendar, Thanksgiving almost always falls during the Nativity Fast. (Thankfully, for those who follow the Old (Julian) Calendar, this only happens in years when Thanksgiving is on November 28th, the first day of the Fast.) The unfortunate timing of Thanksgiving presents a dilemma for many Orthodox faithful: do we hold the fast or break it?
Often at the dinner table, there are so many options that we can easily find something to eat that does not break the fast, and no one will be offended or think to comment. In situations where choices are limited, or the dishes served all contain something that breaks the fast, we should not reject the meal someone has lovingly prepared for us. After all, fasting is about far more than just food. We must abstain from gossip, back-biting, and judging, as well as gluttony, drunkenness, and other sins and passions that often make their home at the Thanksgiving table.
The Patriarchate of Constantinople applied economia for the faithful under its jurisdiction in America, granting its blessing for the faithful to break the fast on Thanksgiving Day. So long as we focus on the unity of our family and the “eucharistic” aspects of this feast. Then, they are to quickly return to the observance of the fast immediately afterwards. Check with your spiritual father to see if your archdiocese has granted special dispensation for this day regarding the fast.
What are you thankful for?
As you gather together with your families and friends this Thanksgiving Day, as you worship in the presence of our God, remember to give thanks. Try to be as specific as possible when thinking about the things you wish to thank God for. In doing so, you realize just how much He has done for you, that you never even realized. In Him we have life that is sacred, abundant, and eternal. And for those lives – and everything in them, even our suffering – we should be eternally grateful.
What are you thankful for? Let us know in the comments below!
Keep Reading: Keeping the Orthodox Faith Alive at Home