The Real First Thanksgiving
This week brings with it the 4th Thursday of the month of November and that in turn brings the joys of turkey, yams, and cranberries – those culinary items rarely if ever eaten on any other day of the year in their natural form – and while most Americans will prepare for the meal with parades and movie marathons centering around bb guns and leg lamps (post-gluttony festivities will consist of football and dishes), many of you pious readers of Truth & Charity will be attending Mass. Much has been said by secular commentators in cheesy school pageants about the First Thanksgiving, that occasion on which both English Pilgrims and Native Americans – those sometime friends and sometime enemies – broke bread at common tables. Less has been said about the first American Thanksgiving, celebrated not at Plymouth Rock, but in St. Augustine, Florida. Still less has been said about the first real Thanksgiving in all the world.
On the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, also a Thursday that year, men of different backgrounds – fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot, and others – reclined at table with a carpenter-rabbi to break unleavened bread and (so they expected) to take up the cup of salvation, the cup foretold in the Todah psalm of the Passover Liturgy:
“How can I repay the LORD
for all the great good done for me?
I will raise the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the LORD.” -Psalm 116:12-13
The same psalm, which those 11 remaining disciples and their Lord sang on the way to Gethsemane (cf. Matthew 26:30), was not fulfilled that very night. Although they drank 3 of the 4 cups necessary to complete the Passover Seder, Christ never drank the 4th cup at the meal, the Cup of Consummation (here’s a handy cheat sheet, or you can read Scott Hahn’s more complete work here), ritually consumed after the very psalm they had sung. Jesus Himself, knowing what they would be anticipating after their psalm, had already let them down easy ahead of time:
Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; for I tell you that from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” -Luke 22:17-18
What does all this have to do with Thanksgiving? It was the very first of all Thanksgivings! Jesus thanked God before the meal. Moreover, the psalm the disciples sang with their Lord was one of the Todah Psalms, the Great Hallel (as in Hallelujah; cheat sheet on that here). Todah is the Hebrew word for Thanks and the Todah Psalms are the Bible’s great liturgical expressions of Thanksgiving.
By itself, that recitation of the Great Hallel would have been enough for us to consider the Last supper as a fitting thanksgiving meal, but it would have been imperfect and incomplete, its conclusion left dangling by the absence of the 4th cup. Fortunately for us, another of the Todah psalms points the way:
“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help,
from my cries of anguish? …
Save me from the lion’s mouth,
my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.
Then I will proclaim your name to my brethren;
in the assembly I will praise you.” -Psalm 22:2, 22-23
Upon the Cross, Jesus drank again of the fruit of the vine, a vinegar-soaked sponge having been raise to his mouth on a branch of hyssop. It was the Cup on Consummation. He even utted among His last words: “it is finished” (in Latin, “consummatus est”). Then, to save us, Jesus died. The Kingdom had begun. His sacrifice, the ultimate expression of love for God, was also the ultimate gift to man and most worthy of our thanks. (Spiritual high-five if you just thought, “it is right and just.”) Yet He also offered thanks to His heavenly Father for saving His life from the grave and restoring Him to life through the Resurrection, in which we are able to share. In order to fashion us evermore in His likeness through sacramental grace, Christ took the Passover, with its Todah psalm, and – uniting the Cup of Blessing (the 3rd cup) to the Cup of Consummation, as well as the Passover to Cross – transformed the thanksgiving of the Old Testament seder into the Eucharist – Greek for Thanksgiving – of the Mass.
Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me. And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.” -Luke 22:18-20
How awesome is that! We Catholics are most privileged among all Christians to be able to celebrate, not only this Thursday, but every Sunday – and even everyday – the First Thanksgiving, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We Catholics don’t simply reinact that First Real Thanksgiving, we commemorate it through the anamnesis of the liturgy. We don’t simply break bread with strangers or even enemies – great as that might be – instead, we participate in Christ, altogether in the unity of His Mystical Body, the Church.
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” -1 Corinthians 10:16-17
Want to celebrate the perfect Thanksgiving this year? Turn off the parade and go to Mass. Oh, and gentlemen: help your wives with the dishes.