This week we celebrate both Thanksgiving and the beginning of Advent. There is no intended connection between the two, but they usually fall within four days of each other, and they theologically complement one another. Thanksgiving is the day marking one of our nation’s founding events. The Pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution in England, braved the brutal Atlantic on the Mayflower and endured massive hardships and the loss of half their crew within a year. Yet, with assistance from the Wampanoag tribe who taught the Pilgrims how to plant and harvest corn, the two people groups came together to share a celebratory feast in November 1621. Edward Winslow, who chronicled the first Thanksgiving feast, wrote:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us . . .”
In other words, they ate a lot of turkey and corn, shot guns off and hung out together. What a party! 399 years later, my family celebrated Thanksgiving in much the same way. We hung out together and ate a lot of turkey and corn (and stuffing, and mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, and sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie . . .). Alas, no firearms were involved. Instead, we went around the table and shared a few reasons why we are thankful in the midst of the most bizarre year we have ever lived through. This was moving and encouraging to hear, broken up only by my brother’s dog who reached up on his hind legs, nudged the platter of dark turkey meat off the kitchen counter, and as it shattered on the floor devoured it with Calvin in about 1.5 seconds (I was not thankful for that at all. Dark meat is my favorite and I was looking forward to the leftovers).
The act of giving thanks assumes that there is someone or something to thank. Who is responsible for the blessings we have received? Is it dumb luck, an impersonal force in the cosmos, or our own intelligence and will that have enabled us to have these wonderful gifts that we enjoy but often take for granted? No, no and no. We give thanks to the Lord, the Giver of all good things (James 1:17). And there is no gift that could ever be eclipsed by the gift of his own Son Emmanuel, “God with us.”
Advent is from the Latin, adventus. It means “coming” or “arrival.” The arrival of the only One who can save us from our selfishness and sinfulness. He came to us in full humanity as a vulnerable baby born to a vulnerable teenage virgin mom. Yet he was also fully God, and grew up to walk on water, raise the dead and feed thousands from a few loaves and fish. These miracles were not the purpose of his ministry, they were the proof that he has the power to rescue us (which was the purpose of his ministry). He came to seek and save us (Luke 19:10). We do not find him, he finds us. Richard John Neuhaus put it this way:
“The good news is that God is searching for us. Better yet, he has found us. The great question is not whether we have found God but whether we have found ourselves being found by God. God is not lost. We were, or, as the case may be, we are.”
God has come near, and taken on human skin, in Jesus. This is the miracle of the Incarnation that we celebrate during Advent, the miracle of the infinite taking on finitude, the eternal offering Himself up to death for our sake. And in the Incarnation of Jesus, we have every reason to rejoice and be grateful.
There are many reasons, too many to number, to give thanks to the Giver of all good things. But the greatest reason, and the reason that supersedes any hardships we face, is the gift of Emmanuel, God with us, who came to rescue us from sin and accomplish our salvation. May we joyfully worship Him together this season.