(forthcoming in Inspire Magazine, Dec. 7, 2007)
Urban sprawl has invaded the holidays. Thanksgiving used to be a day we celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, by Presidential proclamation. It reminded us of our godly heritage and dependence on the graciousness of others (the Wampanoag Indians, in this case). I speak in past tense, because it seems to me we no longer have room for such a simple, un-Hallmarked, non-materialist observance as Thanksgiving. Wall Street has dictated that we try to capture the “spirit” of Christmas (fourth quarter profits) earlier and earlier. With all the displays, sales and sounds of Christmas we’ve been living with these weeks, I got to thinking that maybe instead of lamenting the eclipse of Thanksgiving, what if I could find a way to make Christmas a more thanks-filled celebration?
The inspiration for my infusing the celebration of Christmas with the substance of thanksgiving is found in a psalm written by King David’s worship leader. Right in the middle of Psalm 50, a prophetic psalm of judgment, comes Asaph’s inspired refrain: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Psalm 50:14-15). This divine instruction finishes off a section of the psalm where God has told Israel he doesn’t need their bulls and goats (50:7-13). At the same time, God accepts their free offering of thankfulness in the form of a sacrifice (see Leviticus 7) because He still wants relationship with them .
The sacrifice of thanksgiving, like all other offerings to God, requires two things: 1) that the worshiper give an animal from his own herd or flock for the priest to slaughter before God and 2) that the offering be combined with a heartfelt change of our attitude and actions (repentance, see Romans 12:1-2). If these conditions were met, the sacrifice was acceptable to God. Even when the conditions weren’t met, though, God still allowed the formal “sacrifice of thanksgiving” to take place. Why?
There is a symbolism in sacrifice that, for me, ties together the significance of Thanksgiving and Christmas: in sacrifice an innocent animal is offered for the sins of the guilty, and that exchange is required for God to have relationship with broken, sinful worshipers like us. When we understand the grace of God in providing Jesus as the “lamb of God” (John 1:29), the one who, having been born of a virgin was “a male without defect” (Leviticus 1:3), and by whose death “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10), then we see what great lengths and depths God went to in order to love and accept us. When the reality sinks in that the blood of every innocent animal slaughtered in the Old Testament paints a picture of the Son of God suffering as our once-for-all sacrifice, then thanksgiving and Thanksgiving, and thanks-giving and Christmas come together in our hearts, and we overflow in praise.
What a tragedy and a contradiction in terms is a Christian celebrating Christmas without thanksgiving! It’s like longing for a legal but loveless marriage, like working indoors on a perfect spring afternoon, like voicing prayers to empty idols, god-less forms without any substance. Such is the culture we live in, who celebrate the shell of a holiday devoid of both meaning and praise to God. When we put thanksgiving and Christmas together, we ourselves become a living sacrifice, demonstrating God’s love to those outside. Don’t think friends and family won’t savor the aroma of a life fully devoted to God and full of thanks during this holiday season. Merry Christmas, or maybe I should say, “Merry Thanksgivemas.”