The other day I asked my kids why we celebrate Thanksgiving. The three-year-old said “Jesus,” which is usually a failsafe answer, but in this case, unfortunately wrong.
Of course we talked about the pilgrims surviving the first winter and their friendship with the Native Americans.
(If you’re feeling uneasy about the justice of Thanksgiving, I recently met a guy named Alan Duncan who launched a video series called “Examples Please” and recently released one on the subject of Thanksgiving. Watch it on Instagram here or on Twitter here.)
It’s interesting that Thanksgiving is one of our few major holidays that doesn’t have a religious pretense.
But then I reflected on the very word, thanksgiving—literally the giving of thanks.
If we can step back to the seventh grade together, “give” is what grammar nerds call a transitive verb, which means it requires a direct object. It has to be done to something. Just like the word “bring” or “fed.”
We can’t just say, “Julie fed.” It doesn’t make any sense yet. Your listener would be logically asking, “Julie fed what?”
Transitive verbs also then often have an indirect object, which answers the question “who or what is affected by or receives the action?” So we would expect a sentence like “Julie fed a cake a to Janet.” That to Janet is the indirect object, the object that receives the action. It’s important.
If you’re still with me, “give” is the same. We can’t say, “Julie gives.” We’d all be wondering, Julie gives what? Who did she give it to?
“Thanksgiving” is an incomplete idea, because it fails to address the indirect object. It fails to address the question, “who or what receives the giving of thanks?”
We can be thankful as some sort of zen inner state of being, without anyone else involved. But to give thanks, to have Thanksgiving, requires an indirect object.
We’re giving thanks, but to whom?
We get to choose how we resolve that question. We can be thankful to our family, to our country, to our employer, to our church.
Psalm 107:1 offers what I think is a better solution to the indirect object. “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”
To whom? To the LORD!
We can engage with Thanksgiving as a people that recognize that all of our blessings flow from one source.
As James 1: 17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
For the worshipful Christian, perhaps Thanksgiving is the most unadulterated, genuinely spiritual holiday of them all. Perhaps there’s more Jesus in this holiday than we know.
But it’s up to us to make it that way.
And that’s not just an inward state of being. Will someone ask you what you’re thankful for today? What if you included the indirect object of your giving of thanks? What a natural opportunity to publicly display your faith without being preachy or ostentatious.
It turns out my three-year-old was right. Thanksgiving is about Jesus. If it’s about thanks, how could it be about anything else?
Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise him, all creatures here below;
Praise him above, ye heavenly host:
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Have a happy Thanksgiving!