Thanksgiving is What It Means to be Human

There is something mysterious about food. When human beings of any time, any culture, any income bracket, any religious persuasion or lack thereof, and any cuisine decide to cook and eat together, something sparks. The ritual of the table preparations, the incense-like aromas of meat and vegetables, and the way someone needs to say something before we all dig in--all of this smacks of something sacred. 

Theologian Alexander Schmemman once wrote:

 Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. A meal is still a rite--the last 'natural sacrament' of family and friendship, of life that is more than 'eating' and 'drinking.' To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that 'something more' is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.

In other words, whether you believe in God or not, whether there's someone to be thankful to or not, sharing a meal fills our souls with a sense of something holy that needs celebrating and requires gratitude.

But why? Why should we be inspired to gratitude and celebration regardless of whether we believe this meal is from God or we believe that our lives are a cosmic accident? Why is it so hard to shake the desire to "give thanks" even if you think it's only an impersonal Universe that's receiving your thanks, or that it's really just something you do to make yourself a better person and aren't really giving anyone anything?

Schmemman and the ancient Genesis account of creation would say food makes us thankful because God made it his first gift to us. Not as an addendum, but as an act of creation, God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food." It is built into the very fabric of who we are (far deeper than our intellect) to receive food as a gift from God. When we receive a gift, we become grateful. When we're grateful, we give thanks to the Giver. It's how we are wired, no matter who we are.

My hope is that as we celebrate Thanksgiving, we wouldn't do it as a celebration of limitless consumption (giving thanks to the god of consumerism), or as a celebration of a myth of easy relationships between colonizers and indigenous peoples of the Americas (giving thanks to the god of power by whitewashing our history), but as a celebration of the God whose hospitality to us is the foundation of our very life. Thanksgiving is what it means to be human.

May every bite be a blessing, every morsel a reminder of the gift of life, and may every taste echo in thanksgiving to the Giver.