One of the curious paradoxes and points of connection between the American tradition and the Catholic Tradition is that our country was founded, in large measure, by the people known as the Puritans, who were not much on things like Mass and what they called “popery”. Indeed, they came to this country because, in the words of Garrison Keillor, they sought the freedom to be harsher with themselves than English law allowed. When (a few years after Plymouth Rock) they managed to seize control back in the Mother Country, they promptly killed the King (too Romish, he) and then set about stamping out everything the English regarded as fun, including feasts like “Christmas”. After a decade or so, the Brits had enough of this, brought back the King and said good riddance to the Puritans. Chesterton sums up the place of these Calvinist zealots in English memory when he remarks that “In America, they have a feast to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims. Here in England, we should have a feast to celebrate their departure.”
Ironically, that feast we have here in America bears the name, oddly, of the English translation of the word “Eucharist”. And the imagery that feast conjures in the American imagination has real connections with what the Church is getting at in her teaching on the true feast of Thanksgiving, the Blessed Sacrament.
The Catechism speaks of the Eucharist as both a sign of God’s superabundance and as an offering of thanks.
1335 The miracles of the multiplication of the loaves, when the Lord says the blessing, breaks and distributes the loaves through his disciples to feed the multitude, prefigure the superabundance of this unique bread of his Eucharist. The sign of water turned into wine at Cana already announces the Hour of Jesus’ glorification. It makes manifest the fulfillment of the wedding feast in the Father’s kingdom, where the faithful will drink the new wine that has become the Blood of Christ.
1359 The Eucharist, the sacrament of our salvation accomplished by Christ on the cross, is also a sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving for the work of creation. In the Eucharistic sacrifice the whole of creation loved by God is presented to the Father through the death and the Resurrection of Christ. Through Christ the Church can offer the sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving for all that God has made good, beautiful, and just in creation and in humanity.
1360 The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, a blessing by which the Church expresses her gratitude to God for all his benefits, for all that he has accomplished through creation, redemption, and sanctification. Eucharist means first of all “thanksgiving.”
The Thanksgiving aspect of Eucharist is, at once, obvious and mysterious, It is obvious because “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” But it is startling and mysterious, especially in our age of hedonism and comfort-worship, to think of a ritual commemoration of a brutal death on a cross as an occasion of gratitude.
Nonetheless, we do so because the Victim of that brutal death insisted on it. For Jesus, even His death, horrible as it was, was to be an occasion of celebration because of the joy it would ultimately give birth to in the Resurrection. And so the One who was about to offer His body on the Cross gave thanks for bread and the cup and declared “This is My body. This is My blood.” This willingness to offer thanks to God even in the face of terrible suffering is something the Pilgrims preserved out of the shipwreck of 16th Century European Christianity. Say what you will about them, for all the theology the Puritans got disastrously wrong, they at least got that right and we comfy suburban 21st Century Catholics can learn something from that courage to affirm God’s goodness even in the face of such tragedies and deprivation. As we give thanks to God the Father in the Eucharist, we must always bear in mind that we are doing so in the footsteps of the Son who endured unutterable sufferings—and thanked His Father for it all in the Eucharist. That’s not easy—which is why we need the grace the Eucharist gives so that we can take up our cross and follow him.
The other great sign which shines out for us, both in the Eucharist and in the American feast of Thanksgiving is superabundance. One of the hallmarks of a true feast is that it is waaaaay too much! A feast without leftovers is not a feast. The feast of the loaves and fishes in the Gospels and the wedding feast at Cana both show this forth. Jesus doesn’t just make enough bread and enough wine. He makes a ridiculous amount of it—far more than the guests at the feast can consume! Even after the crowd has had their fill, there is a colossal amount of leftovers and an absurd quantity of wine. Such imagery, like the bounty of the groaning board at Thanksgiving in some Norman Rockwell painting, communicates to us a foreshadowing of the incredible abundance of the coming gift of the Eucharist, when billions of people would feast on the Body and Blood of Christ and there would be more leftovers than there was food when the feast started. The generosity of God is like that. He is not efficient. He is lavish. For that, we give thanks.