Feasting With True Thanksgiving

Having a Eucharistic frame of mind on the fourth Thursday of November, and always.

A THANKFUL TABLE. Emily Stimpson Chapman enjoys cooking and entertaining, bringing joy and Christlike love to her table, including at Thanksgiving.
A THANKFUL TABLE. Emily Stimpson Chapman enjoys cooking and entertaining, bringing joy and Christlike love to her table, including at Thanksgiving. (photo: Courtesy of Emily Stimpson Chapman)

Yes, it’s good to be healthy and fit. Yes, it’s good to care for our bodies. But it’s good to feast, too. It’s good to sit down with family and friends and joyfully partake in the bounty of the season.

The good news is: We can have it both ways. We don’t have to munch mournfully on celery sticks while everyone else sops up gravy with Grandma’s homemade rolls. We don’t have to abstain from all things good in order to care for our bodies. We just have to approach the feast with a spirit of thanksgiving. We have to enter into the day with a Eucharistic frame of mind, which, in Greek, means essentially the same thing.

Eucharistia is the Greek word for Thanksgiving. The Eucharistic Feast — the Marriage Supper of the Lamb — is, literally, the Thanksgiving Feast.

Yes, the Eucharist is a sacrifice. It’s the representation of the greatest sacrifice ever known — Christ’s self-offering on Calvary. But it’s also a feast — the feast where we receive Christ’s Body and Blood and give thanks to God for giving his life for us.

In the Mass, we offer our lives back to God with thanksgiving and praise. And at the Thanksgiving table, we’re called to do something similar: We’re called to praise God for all the gifts he has poured out on us in the last year. We’re also called to offer a sacrifice, in the form of food, lovingly prepared for others. And then we’re called to receive that sacrifice, feasting with gratitude and love.

The two meals are not the same. One has infinite supernatural value. The other does not. But when we feast with a mind to The Feast, when we let one form of thanksgiving guide the other, not only does Thanksgiving take on a deeper meaning, but it also becomes possible to dine with greater freedom and joy.

Practically speaking, that means three things.

First, it means feasting with gratitude. At the Thanksgiving table, every item put before us is a gift. Roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon and pecans, creamy sweet potatoes lightly spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, cranberry chutney that perfectly balances tartness and sweetness — these are blessings. They aren’t merited. We’re weak, sinful creatures who squabble with our sisters, get frustrated with our parents and nag our spouses.

Regardless, come Thanksgiving, by the providence of God, our loved ones still whip up these tasty treats for us. And we do the same for them. That outpouring of generosity imitates God’s generosity. We set the table with a bountiful array of unmerited deliciousness as a symbol of the bountiful array of the unmerited blessings he bestows on us.

The proper response to that blessing isn’t to pass it up because we might gain a pound. Rather, it’s to joyfully receive the sacrifice of love before us, praising Jesus for the abundance of goodness in the world and praising the cooks for the abundance of goodness on the table.

Eating Eucharistically at Thanksgiving also means eating with moderation. We don’t gorge ourselves on Christ’s Body and Blood. We take what we’re given and trust that the grace is sufficient. Thanksgiving supper calls for a similar display of temperance.

After all, feasting, in the Catholic Tradition, is not a synonym for gluttony. Gluttony is a sin — one of the seven biggies, along with wrath, avarice, lust, pride, envy and sloth. A vicious form of self-love, it puts the body’s natural appetites above kindness, charity and consideration for others.

Contrary to popular opinion, though, when the Church preaches against gluttony, she’s not simply preaching against overeating. The sin of gluttony entails much more than eating too much. As St. Gregory the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas both explained, we are guilty of gluttony when we eat “hastily, sumptuously, too much, greedily, daintily.”

Spelled out in more detail, that means we commit the sin of gluttony when we eat before we’re hungry (hastily); when we regularly or exclusively dine on only the most expensive and richest foods (sumptuously); when we overeat (too much); when we take more than our fair share (greedily); and when we insist upon eating only certain foods or refuse foods not grown, prepared or served in specific ways (daintily).

So, how do we navigate the Thanksgiving table without falling into the “hastily, sumptuously, too much, greedily, daintily” trap? Again, moderation. We temper our eating early in the day, so that we’re hungry when the dinner bell sounds. We make room for both Brussels sprouts and gravy on our plates. We take one piece of pie, not two. We don’t make a fuss when the potatoes aren’t prepared exactly to our liking. And we save second helpings for Friday. Then we escape further temptation by going for a nice long walk or by doing another well-spent activity.

On Thanksgiving and every day, all good things before us (to which we’re not allergic) can be eaten without guilt when eaten in proper measure.

Last but not least, feasting Eucharistically means feasting with others. The Marriage Supper of the Lamb has a guest list without number. In this lifetime, we share it with our brothers and sisters in Christ, surrounded by the angels of God. In the next life, all of the saints of heaven partake in it. As host of this Supper, God’s goal isn’t filling a small table. He wants to fill every seat in the house. Not everyone will necessarily accept his invitation, but he invites them just the same.

We imitate God, the Generous Host, when we welcome others to join us on Thanksgiving: extending invitations to the single co-worker who can’t make it home or the elderly neighbor whose children live far away. Our homes aren’t boundless banquet halls, but they usually have room for one or two more.

We also imitate God the Host when we keep our attention where it should be: on people, not food. Tuscan kale sautéed in bacon fat is a glorious wonder, but it pales in comparison to the glorious wonder of your Uncle Ed. A golden-brown turkey, perfectly basted and moist, is a miracle; your children, sitting around the table, however, are greater miracles still. Talking together, laughing together, drinking in the pleasure of company from near and far is, ultimately, what makes for a joyous feast.

So, focus on the company. Talk more than you eat. Laugh more than you drink. Love more than you fret about the dishes on the table (or in the kitchen sink). If you do all that, your feast will become truly Eucharistic, truly a feast of thanksgiving.

Emily Stimpson Chapman

writes from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

She is the author of the new book

 The Catholic Table.

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the

Nov. 13, 2016, print issue and online Nov. 24, 2016.