This week we USAmericans celebrate Thanksgiving Day, arguably our favorite national holiday. This traditional harvest festival traces its roots to 1621 when the English settlers in Massachusetts Colony celebrated an abundant harvest with a four-day banquet and invited the Wampanoag Native People to join them as their guests. For the next 320 years, motivated by custom, spiritual instinct and numerous presidential proclamations, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving irregularly on a variety of days. In December 1941, the U.S. Congress finally made it a legal national holiday to be observed on the fourth Thursday of each November. Canadians also observe an annual day of thanksgiving for their bounty, on the second Monday in October in keeping with an earlier Autumn marking the end of its harvest. (Many people around the world have long celebrated harvest festivals, in Africa and Australia, Korea and Malaysia and the ancient Middle East. They also enjoyed family and feasts — leave it to the United States to hijack the day with football!)
As I contemplate the approaching holiday, I think of the biblical connection between God’s grace and our giving thanks. Throughout the Bible, God’s people note the relationship, as Paul does for example in writing to believers in Corinth. The gospel message is God’s treasure entrusted to human messengers, Paul says, “so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). The sense is clear: God gives us his grace and in return we give God our thanks. Thus our thanksgiving brings the movement full circle. From God’s glory flow his gratuitous gifts — which stimulate our gratitude — which we express by giving thanks — which brings glory to our gracious God.
The notion also fascinates me on another level as a lover of words. A lifelong logophile, I am struck by the linguistic connections found in many Indo-European languages between the words for “grace” and “thanksgiving.” I cannot speak for Celtic, Slavic, Baltic, Iranian or Indic — which are also Indo-European languages — but my point is illustrated in the Hellenic/Greek, where “grace” is charis and “thanksgiving” is eucharistia (giving our word “Eucharist”). So with the Latin, where “grace” is gratia and “thanksgiving” is gratiarum. This Latin connection even finds its way into English (which descends from Germanic roots as do Dutch, German and Frisian — and not from Latin roots at all — in the word-pair “grat-uitous” and “grat-itude” (used in the paragraph just before this one). I can think of no similar word-pair in native-born English, but we do maintain the verbal connection between grace and thanksgiving when we use the idiomatic expression “say grace” to mean “give thanks.”
However, the major Romance (from “Rome”) languages faithfully display the theological point made earlier by their parental Latin, as well as by their “Aunt Hellen” or “Uncle Greek.” If we look at Second Corinthians 4:15 in New Testament translations of the Romance languages we will find that “grace” in Spanish is gracia and “thanksgiving” or “giving of thanks” is gracias. The French New Testament has grace for “grace” and graces for “giving of thanks.” Similarly, “grace” is grazia in Italian, where “thanksgiving” is ringraziamento. Not surprisingly, the Portuguese translation of our passage has graca for “grace” and gracas for “thanksgiving” or “giving of thanks.” So — whatever the date on the calendar, regardless of our national homeland, no matter what may be our native tongue — as citizens of the Kingdom of God and recipients of his grace through Jesus Christ, let us always give thanks to the glory of God!