Thanksgiving Communion

Whom should I thank?IMG_2938

The question is normally a matter of polite acknowledgement. A gift was given and received. Who gave it? Whom should I thank?

It is inherently the nature of giving thanks that thanks must be given to someone. I cannot give thanks to nothing or no one. As such, the giving of thanks is an act of communion on one level or another.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in the last sermon of his life, said, “Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.” I would expand that and say as well, that everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of becoming human – for the fullness of our humanity is found primarily in communion. And the communion of thanksgiving is perhaps communion at its deepest level.

The prominent place of thanksgiving within the life of the Old Testament seems strangely obscured by most Christian treatments. The system of sacrifice is often misunderstood. The offering of bulls and goats is easily interpreted as a system of payments to an angry God. Our sins have created a debt and deserved guilt. What is owed to God must be paid. But this very treatment of sacrifice is condemned within the Old Testament itself.

I know all the birds of the mountains, And the wild beasts of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all its fullness. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, Or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God thanksgiving, And pay your vows to the Most High. (Psa 50:11-14)

The offering given to God is given in thanksgiving or it is useless.

It is quite accurate to view the whole of the life given to Israel as an economy of thanksgiving. The system of the tithe, giving to God a tenth of possessions, is not a system of payments, “rent” given to a heavenly landlord. It is an offering of thanks, an act of communion, sharing with God the very life of the land itself. God and Israel have a communion in the land – something which truly makes it the land of promise.

The system of the Sabbath, when rightly observed, has the same character. The Sabbath Day represents God’s time, set aside from labor. Acquisition stops. Time itself becomes an act of thanksgiving. The more radical practice of the Sabbath, when an entire year (the seventh year) is set aside demonstrates how profound the nature of this communion was intended to be. Debts were cancelled in the seventh year. We set others free from their bonds because God has set us free from ours. Former slaves should not create new slaves – it would be an act that negated the giving of thanks.

It seems to me not surprising that the penal substitution theory of the atonement has had such a cultural popularity over the centuries. It became at home in a penal culture – one of debts and punishments. The good, the industrious, the diligent and the frugal prosper and reign. The sluggard, the weak, and the slothful fall ever further into poverty, driven by their own sin. There are many things that ameliorate this model in modern culture, but it remains at the structural heart of our lives.

The atonement, Christ’s death and resurrection, do not have a place within such a structure. His death is not a payment within a world of payments – an ultimate sacrifice that we could not afford. It is rather the trampling down of the whole world of payments, demolishing the greatest debt of all: death. The sacrifice of Christ is not like the blood of bulls and goats, only human. It is Life poured out on death, thanksgiving triumphing over necessity. Every act of thanksgiving is a communion in the death and resurrection of Christ. It is for that reason that the thankful are capable of salvation – for the giving of thanks makes manifest the fundamental shape of salvation.

All of this is the reason that from the earliest times, the offering of Christ’s Body and Blood has been known as the Eucharist. It is the Thanksgiving. Were this not so, the Church would have named this most central act of its life something else: the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. These are later titles given in an effort to distinguish Protestant worship from Catholic. The word Eucharist is returning to common usage, however. It will be truly significant when the Eucharist (thanksgiving) returns to Christians as a way of life.

The stuff of our daily lives should have more kinship with Old Testament sabbath-thought than with the theories of Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, Maynard Keynes and the like. For when we work for some reason apart from the giving of thanks, we labor as slaves, bound to whatever it is that we perceive as necessary. Christ would free us from such bondage:

Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying,’What shall we eat?’ or’What shall we drink?’ or’What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Mat 6:30-33)

This is not a commandment from Christ to cease working. But it is a commandment to work rightly.  Our labor is right and good when it is done in communion with God, and this is done primarily in the giving of thanks. The heart of thanksgiving precludes the sense of entitlement – for who gives thanks if what he has was something to which he was entitled? My work, my cleverness, my investments do not give me claim to wealth. For if they give me claim to wealth, then why should I be grateful for what I have?

But Christ gives us everything: “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.” And, “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” If all that I have is a gift for which I give thanks, a means of communion with God, then why should I begrudge sharing it with anyone? Indeed, the act of sharing is itself a primary and inherent part of giving thanks. We give to others because what we have has been given to us. Like Israel, we have communion with all those who are strangers to the goods of this world, for we ourselves once were strangers:

Also you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exo 23:9)

The giving of thanks is not a moral activity: like communion, it is a mode of existence. There is no Christianity that does not include the giving of alms. Sharing belongs to the ontology of the faith.

But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. (Heb 13:16)

25 comments:

  1. I thank you, Fr. Stephen, and our great God for such a clear and cogent post regarding the true logic of Life. 🙂

  2. I think that the more traditional, Greek understanding of sacrifice & offering are intertwined (with ‘offering’ here being understood as an “offering of thanks” ). This made the notion of the offering of ‘first fruits’ (as eucharistic) a very natural notion. Whether the first-fruits are the best of a farmer’s crop, the first hours of one’s morning or the first-born of Abraham (or the Son of God the Father for that matter)… the notion of this first-fruit “offering” showing BOTH a sacrifice AND a grateful love, is perhaps easier to presume in cultures that have had less of a PSA influence?

  3. I think it interesting that true thanksgiving is the foundation to deep repentance, at least in my experience. I would be interested in seeing a treatment of the link between the two. That and the etymological link between being justified (forgiven giving thanks) and justice.

    May the joy of the Lord be with all and each of you.

  4. I’ve been Orthodox for over 20 years now and am still trying to shed my modern, Protestant, western baggage. I’m going to have to read this one over and over. The Old Testament has been a snare for me as I try to shed the image of an angry god who required all that bloody, expensive sacrifice. That what they were doing was a form of thanksgiving blows my mind! Every day I come to the realization that God is greater than I ever imagined Him, and I give Him thanks (and you) for this blog which keeps pointing me in the right direction.

  5. Absolutely beautiful! Well written and the truth so many miss in this life. It has been my experience that you can’t out give God. Giving of your self, time, talents, resources, and not just 10% of your money either-always brings back more than you ever gave. Give with a joyous heart-thanking God that you have it to give- not expecting anything in return. God will multiply your gifts of thanks In ways that you often could never imagine. God has given us life, and everything we are or will have. Thanking Him is a way I like to begin my day. Thanking him for everything- even the pain and effects of aging we deal with. The good, bad, and painful of life too. Each day is a priceless gift from God-one that all the money in the world cannot buy. Be of joy and have a Merry Heart. Don’t waste any of it on anger, hatred, or things that hurt us and others. Forgive quickly and pray for those who hurt or offend you . I have suffered much in my 73 years but I have also been very blessed and am very thankful for how God has always provided and cared for us-even in the hardest of times. Thank you too Father for sharing this great wisdom today.

  6. Father Stephen, Bless.
    Thank you for this beautiful post. This has about it the light of the Kingdom of Heaven.
    Thanks be to our Lord and God for His blessings that are beyond reckoning.
    I am entering my third year in Orthodoxy. Our sister Tabitha said words better than I could to express my gratitude for this blog.

  7. Something else most people don’t realize regarding the OT sacrifices (whether they were meat, grain, oil, or wine) is that part of the OT liturgical ritual required many of them to be eaten by the offerer and the priest together in the Presence of God within the temple/tabernacle – a kind of “eucharistic meal.”
    Also little known is that the OT sacrifices were made with salt (which casts Christ’s claim “You are the salt of the Earth” in its proper liturgical context).

  8. Father,
    As a (perhaps unusual) child, I loved Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, wherein a young girl is sacrificed as part of the celebration of the advent of spring. In this ballet, the life forces can be awesome and disturbing, but there is no suggestion of atonement.
    Later on, a teacher of mine, who was doing an anthropology MA in ancient American cultures, explained the Mayan human sacrifices as a thanksgiving.
    So it seems the penal substitution theory of the atonement is the odd one out for world cultures, even though it has such a hold on our minds that this seems the only natural way to think about it.

  9. Gratitude is the new buzzword or focus in psychology and self-help. Truly science declares the eternal truths of the human condition that the simple can accept straight from the mouth of God. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, “16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

  10. @Anonymo
    I think we’ve seen this script before, when the psychology/self-help profession took the Buddhist term “mindfulness”, stripped out all the underlying theological context and ended up with some pretty thin soup that meant something quite different from the original. I expect the same kind of results in their coopting of “gratitude.”

  11. Anonymo,
    I’ve been picking up on those “scientific” notes viz. “gratitude.” Of course, if you’re being truly secular, then it’s just the general frame of mind that they want to credit. It becomes nothing more than a “positive frame of mind.” The great weakness, of course, is that the giving of thanks ultimately requires someone to thank. Otherwise it’s just, “thank your lucky stars,” or some such silliness.

    What is striking, I think, is that this is just continuing evidence that we were and are created for life lived in union with God.

    I once had a long conversation with a Chinese student at the university who said to me: “I do not see the necessity of God. You have your family and the State. What else do you need?”

    I politely pointed out how utterly unreliable her State had been historically, as well as the thin ice of the family. We chatted for a while longer and I drew on an observation a Chinese Christian had shared with me. In China, “luck” is their God. I asked about this, and the student agreed that this was an accurate observation.

    I pursued the conversation into the realm of suffering and of Christ’s union with our suffering. What was clear was that this entire category was almost a taboo thought for her – suffering was meaningless in the worst way. The conversation continued for a good while – one of most interesting that I can recall. I am not surprised that Christianity continues to grow (under persecution) in China.

  12. The use of the words ‘attitude of thankfulness’ or ‘being thankful for what one has’ also appears to be an appropriation by a particular self righteous social class who wishes to maintain their status quo. Reflections upon mammon and greed and the effects of such on the soul usually isn’t involved.

    And this is far removed from the thankfulness in the prayers of the Eucharist.

  13. I want to make it clear that I’m not pointing the finger at anyone else other than myself. I’m middle class and have an “abundant” life that easily fits the bill of the prosperity gospel. And I’m definitely grateful for my ‘riches’ because I have been without for a number of years in my life. But the Lord’s words to the rich young man sink into my heart and humbles me. Each time I read such scripture I attempt to modify the implications.

  14. Fr. Stephen’s post back in June “Words for a Wounded Heart” is worth a re-read. … and the comments.

  15. Father your comment was very interesting to me. There was a time when I looked for ‘evidence’ or support for the Christian worldview, now I just come to expect it. However I am aware of our many cognitive biases, primarily confirmation bias so I don’t put too much weight into such speculation. I also try to avoid intellectualising my faith.

    At a low point in my life I felt abandoned by everyone including God. At the time I felt like it was just me digging myself out of the pit I was in, but in retrospect I think God’s grace and presence was close but just out of sight because my eyes were darkened. Certainly in hindsight I see God’s providential hand. I take solace in the fact that salvation is a relationship with God, which like any relationship has better and worse days. I think I grew a lot spiritually when engaging in struggle in a Christ-like manner, but it could also be that psychological unhealth is a bottleneck for spiritual health or at the very least changes the nature of your spiritual battles and your relationship with God.

    I have been hearing how Orthodox missionaries are sensitive to the interaction between culture and the gospel. I think it is common knowledge in Christian circles that under persecution is where the Church really grows, but it is by Orthodoxy that I am beginning to understand why.

    By way of the internet I have heard stories of people who have endured great suffering, and some of those who survived and now are thriving happen to mention being Christians. I believe many acquire the spirit of Christ without knowing of his name and the Christian story and it seems to me they will be welcomed on the last day. I haven’t heard much about this from an Orthodox perspective, other than that we leave judgement to God. The hope for all to be saved is also there, as we dwell on the mercy and love of God. Faith, hope, love the ‘greatest virtues’ were all distorted in my Calvinist framework. I am not interested in exploring the universalist position but am willing and grateful to hold on to the hope that many or all will be saved.

    Dee I agree. Positive psychology which in my opinion is positively harmful was promoted by those above us to, in a word, maintain the status quo.

  16. Thank-you Michael for the suggestion. The article and comments brought me to tears. I too feel called to a simple solitary life, the article is an inspiration for me to follow that. Father Freeman yours is the only blog on Ancient Faith ministries I read. I haven’t tried many others but in my heart I know that this is the one most helpful to me. Apart from your words it is your empathetic presence of itself that is healing to me.

  17. Anonymo, “the simple solitary life” is neither simple nor really solitary. Human beings are interconnected on so many levels especially when we enter the lists of repentance through love of God. The closer one becomes with God, the greater one’s connection to other people even if you are “alone” deep in the wilderness. I rend to think my sins are soooo unique when i fact they are utterly common. That is why the Historian/philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term, “the banality of evil”.
    Of those we know, St. Mary of Egypt pro bably lived the most complete solitary life. I am tempted to think the ones who are most “apart” are those who live amongst us loving God with every breath and action even as they struggle with their own and others besetting sins.
    It is much more difficult to live a life of holiness in community I think. In any case we cannot really escape our brothers and sisters. The lives of the saints teach me that if I cannot love God and repent where I am, I will not do it somewhere else. My heart is to wounded.
    One of the most selfless people I know is an insurance agent. She works in the senior market here in Kansas. She “sells” Medicare plans. This time of year she works 12 to 15 hour days, 7 days a week to help folks get coverage we need. This year, she is doing that having just recovered from major surgery. Her commission compensation probably less than minimum wage on an hourly basis.
    I used to be her primary support person but I only worked 8 to 5, five days a week. Now I am here client and her friend. I feel deeply selfish to ask her to deal with my situation but I do. She sent me a text at 11:45 pm after a day that started at 6 am.
    I do not even pray enough for her. Nor am I thankful enough. It is too easy to think of her as a “crazy lady”.
    God forgive me and bless her labors. I have no doubt she will enter the Kingdom before me.

  18. I agree Michael. Words always fall short for capturing the fullness of the truth. By solitary I ment a life of quiet solitude like that involved in the life of a monastic. It is by Fr. Evan Armatas in Orthodoxy Live that I am hearing of the importance of love and community. To broaden your comment I have found that all my problems are utterly common and it is pride or egotism to believe I have been hit by uniquely bad luck. Instead I face recurrent patterns that affect all men who have ever existed. It is much better to be average then unique because then one faces common problems. Unique is a matter of scale also, even if your problem affects only 1% of the worlds population that is 78 million people and a large proportion will already have faced it and shared their story on the internet. Reflections like this make me feel less alone in the world.

  19. Enneagram 4’s tend to have an obsession with being unique. Look it up if your interested.

  20. I have considerable knowledge of the enneagram as it was one of few ‘spiritual tools’ that was accessible to me and integratable into my Christian worldview. I would like to hear an Orthodox perspective on it, though I suspect there would be a divergence on opinion on it. The older you are the more likely you are less negatively influenced by your type such that you attain true personhood. Enneagram can provide a great amount of self-awareness, but initially it is usually difficult to determine your type. The one type I recoiled from instinctually and said that cannot be me was in fact my type.

    I am young in the spiritual life and I understand that one does not grasp for a specific calling that instead it is a gift from God. Michael are there any blogs or podcasts primarily on monasticism or from that perspective from ancient faith?

  21. Anonymo, I am humbled that you ask that question of me. I am the least qualified to answer but since all is sent by God, I will attempt to answer.

    Monasticism by its nature is hidden. However there is one blog here on Ancient Faith named Morning Offering written daily by Abbott Tryphon which gives a taste and extensive references to Holy Scripture and the Fathers.

    There is one bit of wisdom though that is common: the Orthodox spiritual life is no different for lay and monastics. It is the same for both. Repent for one’s own sins as the chaos of the world emminates from my own heart; pray for others; give alms of money and time; read Holy Scripture; give thanks to God for all things, be obedient to God’s way(follow the commandments). Make your bed and attend to the little things around you.

    I fail every minute of every day so, I am pretty much on step one: repent, all the time. However, I have been given the consolation of joy. Deep abiding joy despite my many failures. If you see sin in someone else that means that at least the temptation to that sin is in or near your own heart. Repent for it because it is your own. Blame no one else. In that submission to God your joy will be full.

    Of course I have to be as certain as I can be that I am praying to the real God. That is where attendance on the Sacraments of the Church is crucial.

    Forgive me my brothers and sisters and Father Stephen.

    Rejoice in the Lord always.

    It really is a one storey universe.

  22. The humble man is willing to love and serve others with weakness knowing that God blesses our feeble efforts. I write this to encourage myself, but take from it what you will. Good to hear some are awake to the covid madness on the Abbot’s blog. From what I have read there are important differences at least in how monastics tackle the spiritual life compared to the lay man but of course most is the same.

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