Funny, isn't it, that Thanksgiving and Eucharist mean the same thing?
After all, the former is a Protestant-founded holiday while the latter is the sacrament the Catholic Church considers the “source and summit of the Christian life.”
Yet Thanksgiving has a sacramental aspect. Properly celebrated, it draws us into things deeper than those that meet the eye — and becomes a little reflection of the Eucharistic supper, which is a foretaste of heaven.
Both Thanksgiving and the Eucharist center on a traditional, celebratory meal during which certain important things are always done. The typical Thanksgiving dinner has an (almost) unchanging menu; the element of ceremony this gives reminds us that there's something more than just a regular meal going on, something worthy of being preserved intact. Similarly, the fixed ceremonies of the liturgy remind us of the importance of the Eucharist.
Thanksgiving dinner is delicious, carefully prepared and presented. It's meant to make us thankful by giving us a tangible reminder of the good things God has given us. That's an aspect of the Eucharist, too — the Church's thanksgiving: the most magnificent meal you can have, where you really eat the true Body of the Son of God. The greatness of God's gifts, and the thanks due him, come into sharp focus when he places before you himself, “the bread from heaven, containing all sweetness,” as your personal food.
The superabundance of Thanksgiving — heaping plates, tasty leftovers — reminds us of the lavishness of God's gifts. He really gives us more than we strictly need. That's exemplified in the Eucharist. When Christ multiplied the loaves, which signified the Blessed Sacrament, everyone ate their fill — yet there were 12 baskets of leftovers. The food we eat at the Eucharist is like that. Christ's grace is greater than is actually required to save us. God is so good that the gifts that flow from him are greater than our need.
Of course, the Eucharist is not only a reminder of God's gifts but also is itself the most perfect way to give thanks to God. That's because it's a re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, when he, by offering all to the Father, gave the most perfect thanks ever. So, besides making you thankful by its own bounty, the Eucharistic sacrifice and meal is itself an act of thanks. Again, our Thanksgiving meal has a little reflection of that: Since the whole reason you make it is to inspire thankfulness, it itself becomes an act of thanks.
The celebratory meal is the central activity of Thanksgiving, but it's not the whole story. Eating with family and friends is an intrinsic part of Thanksgiving, and not just because they're things you're very grateful for. It wouldn't be enough to have dinner by oneself and then see family; it's important that they be at the dinner, sharing it with you.
That's not just because you'd feel guilty about having more than you can eat. The tasty and abundant meal, and the gratitude it excites, are the sort of things that can make more than one person happy (“common goods”). And, in loving the goodness and abundance of the meal, we want it not only to be able to make more than one person happy but to actually do it.
Perhaps it's not so strange that the Thanksgiving holiday shares its name with the Eucharist. Our love for the Eucharistic meal makes us love to have our relatives in Christ eating it with us.
The inner goodness of the holiday shines out when it's set in the context of the eternal thanksgiving of the Church.
Wendy-Irene Grimm writes from Ojai, California.