The Communion of Giving Thanks

Whom should I thank?

The question is normally a matter of polite acknowledgement. A gift was given and received. Who gave it? Whom should I thank?

It is inherently the nature of giving thanks that thanks must be given to someone. I cannot give thanks to nothing or no one. As such, the giving of thanks is an act of communion on one level or another.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in the last sermon of his life, said, “Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.” I would expand that and say as well, that everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of becoming human – for the fullness of our humanity is found primarily in communion. And the communion of thanksgiving is perhaps communion at its deepest level.

The prominent place of thanksgiving within the life of the Old Testament seems strangely obscured by most Christian treatments. The system of sacrifice is often misunderstood. The offering of bulls and goats is most often interpreted as a system of payments to an angry God. Our sins have created a debt and deserved guilt. What is owed to God must be paid. But this very treatment of sacrifice is condemned within the Old Testament itself.

I know all the birds of the mountains, And the wild beasts of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all its fullness. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, Or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God thanksgiving, And pay your vows to the Most High. (Psa 50:11-14)

The offering given to God is given in thanksgiving or it is useless.

It is quite accurate to view the whole of the life given to ancient Israel as an economy of thanksgiving. The system of the tithe, giving to God a tenth of possessions, is not a system of payments, “rent” given to a heavenly landlord. It is an offering of thanks, an act of communion, sharing with God the very life of the land itself. God and Israel have a communion in the land – something which truly makes it the land of promise.

The system of the Sabbath, when rightly observed, has the same character. The Sabbath Day represents God’s time, set aside from labor. Acquisition stops. Time itself becomes an act of thanksgiving. The more radical practice of the Sabbath, when an entire year (the seventh year) is set aside, demonstrates how profound the nature of this communion was intended to be. Debts were cancelled in the seventh year. We set others free from their bonds because God has set us free from ours. Former slaves should not create new slaves – it would be an act that negated the giving of thanks.

It seems to me not surprising that the penal substitution theory of the atonement has had such a cultural popularity over the centuries. It became at home in a penal culture – one of debts and punishments. The good, the industrious, the diligent and the frugal, prosper and reign. The sluggard, the weak, and the slothful fall ever further into poverty, driven by their own sin. There are many things that ameliorate this model in modern culture, but it remains at the structural heart of our lives.

The truth of the atonement, Christ’s death and resurrection, does not have a place within such a structure. His death is not a payment within a world of payments – an ultimate sacrifice that we could not afford. It is rather the trampling down of the whole world of payments, demolishing the greatest debt of all: death. The sacrifice of Christ is not like the blood of bulls and goats, only human. It is Life poured out on death, thanksgiving triumphing over necessity. Every act of thanksgiving is a communion in the death and resurrection of Christ. It is for that reason that the thankful are capable of salvation – for the giving of thanks makes manifest the true fundamental shape of salvation.

All of this is the reason that from the earliest times, the offering of Christ’s Body and Blood has been known as the Eucharist. It is the Thanksgiving. Were this not so, the Church would have named this most central act of its life something else: the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. These are later titles given in an effort to distinguish Protestant worship from Catholic. The word Eucharist is returning to common usage, however. It will be truly significant when the Eucharist (thanksgiving) returns to Christians as a way of life.

The stuff of our daily lives should have more kinship with Old Testament sabbath-thought than with the theories of Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, Maynard Keynes and the like. For when we work for some reason apart from the giving of thanks, we labor as slaves, bound to whatever it is that we perceive as necessary. Christ would free us from such bondage:

Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying,’What shall we eat?’ or’What shall we drink?’ or’What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Mat 6:30-33)

This is not a commandment from Christ to cease working. But it is a commandment to work rightly.  Our labor is right and good when it is done in communion with God, and this is done primarily in the giving of thanks. The heart of thanksgiving precludes the sense of entitlement – for who gives thanks if what he has was something to which he was entitled? My work, my cleverness, my investments do not give me claim to wealth. For if they give me claim to wealth, then why should I be grateful for what I have?

Rather, Christ gives us everything: “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.” And, “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” If all that I have is a gift for which I give thanks, a means of communion with God, then why should I begrudge sharing it with anyone? Indeed, the act of sharing is itself a primary and inherent part of giving thanks. We give to others because what we have has been given to us. Like Israel, we have communion with all those who are strangers to the goods of this world, for we ourselves once were strangers:

Also you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exo 23:9)

The giving of thanks is not a moral activity: like communion, it is a mode of existence. There is no Christianity that does not include the giving of alms. Sharing belongs to the ontology of the faith.

But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. (Heb 13:16)

Glory to God for all things!

Photo: A Christmas meal at Oașa Monastery in Romania. 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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27 responses to “The Communion of Giving Thanks”

  1. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Thank you for this wonderful reflection, Father. And Happy Thanksgiving to all. God grant us love for one another!

  2. Andrew Avatar
    Andrew

    Thank you Father. It occurs to me often that if I could grasp but a fraction of the goodness, love and blessing of God that overflows my life, I’d never grumble or complain again, but would give thanks with every breath. Lord have mercy and open my eyes!

  3. Anna Avatar
    Anna

    Father Stephen,
    Happy Thanksgiving to you!
    Reading your writings and listening to your words are truly a blessing to me.
    Thank you for everything!
    Greetings from Tbilisi, Georgia

  4. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    My work, my cleverness, my investments do not give me claim to wealth. For if they give me claim to wealth, then why should I be grateful for what I have?

    As someone who has been unemployed now for 6 months the shame of not contributing to the stability and safety of my family is overwhelming at times. I have had many interviews, but have not been offered a position. It is really hard not to resist feelings of bitterness. If it wasn’t for my wife and her income. my son and I would basically be homeless. Entire dependent on the generosity of her family to keep us off the street. That isn’t an exaggeration.

    I am struggling to be grateful. It seems like that would require considerable deliberate effort on my part to just choose to be grateful. The angsty uncertainty is a real nail-biter.

    Please, pray that for the sake of my family I have the strength to be genuinely grateful.

  5. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    Very much in my prayers. It’s a very difficult position to be in.

  6. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Simon,

    A family needs more than income for stability and safety. Although it may be difficult to see while going through your situation, you may look back on this time as much more meaningful for your familial relationships than being in a regular job and earning a regular income might have been. A reason to avoid bitterness is that it robs us of experiencing what is good and blessed in our circumstances–such as those things we would never trade for more money.

    As I know only the few details you have posted here, I would not presume to guess what those might be for you personally, and speaking autobiographically might be presumptuous of me. Nevertheless, focusing on the advantages of having a parent at home can be an effective way to find the strength you seek on your family’s behalf.

    It seems that between the lines you have expressed this thought yourself (that your family needs you to be genuinely grateful, thereby providing you with a non-monetary way of contributing to your family’s safety and stability).

    Also, you mention your son. I am always most impressed by fathers who spend time interacting with their children, taking the time to teach them even simple things (I don’t know how old your son is). At my previous residence, I remember a father who used to play catch in the yard with his son evening after evening, and at the nearby park watching a father teach his small daughter how to play tennis. I was always tempted to stop and express my admiration.

    This is not to minimize the importance of providing financial necessities for one’s children. Rather, as a father with two children who have reached adulthood, I am okay looking back with how much money we had while they were growing up. Generous grandparents (like you, on my wife’s side) made security easier to be certain of, and my gratitude toward them as we’ve all aged has only grown.

  7. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Beautiful reflections and truly logical words, dear Father Stephen. Your blog continues to sustain this typically ungrateful sinner. I suppose we all have “reasons” to be bitter and unthankful…in my case, I have the stable job (although the income isn’t that great in terms of the rising costs of living in such a metropolis as Toronto)…my temptation is to be bitter at my ex for not seeing things as i feel she should have, her not embracing Orthodoxy etc…i desired a Godly marriage with her and a comcomitant family, but alas it was not to be. Hard to find a suitable mate these days.

    However, I am learning that the failure and frustration is actually accomplishing more good in me, for my salvation (and possibly for hers ultimately also) as i surrender being “right” and VOLUNTARILY accept the Cross as it has come to me. (And mot being bitter sure feels a lot better!) It is a non-linear process as well, so when we fall we ought not wallow in egotistical self-loathing, but just keep getting up and giving thanks for all things, especially those things which seem adverse to us. (Through gritted teeth even at times.)

    Lord have mercy on you, Simon, and upon us all!

  8. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon,
    Others here have given wise advice. I would just say that I’m grateful today for your perseverance. Thanks for loving your family. Having recently experienced several months of unemployment myself, with small children at home, I can empathize just a little. Hang in there, brother. The Lord is near. robertowenkelly at gmail dot com

  9. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    James – and everyone,
    To give thanks in the face of disappointment and suffering goes to the very heart of what it means to give thanks. To give thanks for the various things that please us does not rise beyond the level of mere politeness. The profound examples in the life of the Church point towards a depth that exists within the giving of thanks that is fundamental.

    Our culture of consumerism (which itself trains the heart’s deepest habits) tends to make the giving of thanks a time to take stock of all the “stuff” we enjoy. It makes God into the “source of good stuff.” But it is, as James describes it, to “keep getting up and giving thanks for all things, especially those things which seem adverse to us,” that act as a slow, healing balm to the heart. It is the heart’s confessing the goodness of God despite any sadness or sorrow – despite every setback and disappointment.

    I think of the Psalm verse (73:25-26)
    “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

    This is the “good part” that Mary of Bethany desired as she sat at the feet of Jesus: “Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

    For myself, I can see that my desire for the “good part” (Christ Himself) wanes all too easily – that my desires wander. But I also see that as my desires wander, so my joy flags and darkness begins to overtake me. The giving of thanks (for all things and at all times) is an ascetic practice – far more difficult and powerful than any form of fasting – that draws the heart towards the good part and acts as a magnet for grace.

    God give us grace to hunger for the good part – as we lift our hearts to Him.

  10. hélène d Avatar
    hélène d

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for all this, so good for the heart, for all life ! You strengthen us so much… and the soul opens up to God’s great desire…

  11. Ilya Avatar
    Ilya

    Oh, so nice that you posted this with a picture of Oașa Monastery! Though I’m Romanian, I’ve never been there – my son has though, and he told me it’s beautiful. Do I remember correctly you once told me that you hoped the meals in heaven are Romanian? :))) You’re so right!

    Happy Thanksgiving, Father’s, and to all of you American neighbours. All the way from Ottawa, Canada, on an ordinary (for us) Thursday in November – we had our turkey and ate it too, in October.

  12. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Thank you for the reply, Father…and for emphasizing the ascetical aspect/core of living a truly Eucharistic life. Which as you well point out is a slow healing balm – not the instant or near-instantaneous “fix” we have been trained to crave, and thereby experience great frustration when it doesn’t come in our timeframe. I believe God is even more stubborn than me – but of course Him in a good way, insisting on what is best for us, while me insisting on what isn’t so good. Thankfully He is Who He is!

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …and what is the entropy of Joy behind Thanksgiving and how is it conquered?

  14. Inna Avatar
    Inna

    Thank you Father for this helpful article! You gave me an understanding of our good tradition to light candles during liturgy. When I were child I heard that if you want to ask God or any saint person for something you might ask and light a candle. But when I became an adult I assumed that it looks more like a pagan action. Like I would say “I give you a candle and you give me what I ask you for.” And I lighted candles just as a part of a beautiful tradition we have. Church looks warm and full of light when you stay surrounded by candles flame 🙂
    And now I understood the real meaning of lighting candles like a part of thanksgiving communion. I do not need to light candles as a payment for deal. I’m free to do this as a part of saying: “Thank you, God, for everything!”

  15. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I want to express thanks to a few people on this blog who responded lately in such kindness to my comments in other streams in this blog.

    To Mark Spurlock, who appreciated my comment involving science and faith. Some people are so challenged with my stance that any connection I make is quite hard to take. Instead, you expressed generosity, and I’m so grateful for it.

    To Michael Bauman, who asks questions about my take on areas in science and how they are intertwined with my faith and Orthodox outlook. For some people, such is a form of abomination, but your questions offered me an opportunity to go deeper, and I so appreciate your curiosity and response. I have few opportunities for such expressions in my home or work life. And I’m grateful for your receptivity and openness to ‘listen’.

    To Owen Kelly, who is willing to reflect and engage in comments rather than judge. I so appreciate your thoughtfulness and capacity for reflection.

    Last, to Father Stephen, who has always guided us all in his gentle way.

    There are others here who I would also thank for various reasons and have done so in the past. However, I’m referring specifically to my comments on science and the receptivity of my comments on this topic. Science is not just a set of ideas for me. I work physically and bodily in a lab in science, and for reasons of the workload, I have lived and breathed science. This might suggest to some that I place God and the Church somewhere low in the rungs of my heart. This is far from the case. I live for Christ and His Church. But I come to Christ as I am, not as some besotted academic, but as someone who seeks God, sees God everywhere present, and asks for His presence in all that I do. This is a daily, moment-to-moment life with Christ. My work in science is where He has brought me.

  16. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Dee,
    Thank you! It’s always a pleasure to read your comments. During our recent discussion of death, I appreciated the scientific insights you shared, especially something about the mitochondria of animal cells and the chlorophyll in plant cells being so similar that they point to a common ancestor connecting plants and animals. Wow. 😳 And those metals in our body connecting us to the minerals of this earth? I love to hear about these findings. Especially when they seem to reveal more fully how all things are knit together in Christ. Glory to God!

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, I must say you remind me a bit of my late father, am MD who spent his life in public health because he saw the interconnectedness of all life. He grew up on the high plains of eastern New Mexico which are still vast without much human life. His father homesteaded there and they lived in a log cabin. His favorite question was “What is out beyond…?
    It inspired both my brother and me to look deeply. Human knowledge, real knowledge, is always connected to the Creator of all things and to His living presence, through Christ Jesus, deep in our hearts. Thank you for your comments and presence here. No one comes and stays without God’s blessing.

  18. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    Dee

    A couple of stories about our “scientific” Saint you may like, which were recently published.

    A Greek aeronautical engineer had come to St Porphyrios, in Kallisia, and told him that he would urgently travel to America, because due to serious damage to the spaceship “Apollo 13 ” (1970) they were facing great difficulty to restore it. (https://greekreporter.com/2019/08/28/anthony-kontaratos-the-greek-nasa-scientist-who-saved-the-apollo-13-crew-video/).

    The Saint had said something like the following to him: “Wait a minute…I see the problem. This and that must be done to bring it back to earth. When you gather there and you all say what must be done, don’t you speak . You will wait to speak last and you will say to them: “Let’s see this way too…”. They will not believe you, but in the end this is how they will bring it back and reward you”.
    This Greek aeronautical engineer finally spoke to NASA and indeed, after the spacecraft wandered for 5-6 days in space, they succeeded in the way the Saint said to bring it back to earth. In fact, the Greek scientist was awarded for this advice.
    That is, the Saint had “seen” precisely (within seconds) how to fix the damage of a spaceship that was 300,000 kilometers away from the earth.

    The miracle is included in the excellent edition of the third volume of the work: THE HOLY PORPHYRIUS THE PROPHET MARTYRS, published by the Agiopaulitiko Iero Kelli of Agioi Theodoros in 2020 (pp. 61 – 62).

    An astrophysicist had gone to the Cell of Saint Porphyrios and was impressed with the revelations he made to him.
    Initially, he was very wary of the Saint’s gifts and was generally lukewarm in his faith. But when he came out, he was a different person.
    They had begun to talk about the heavenly bodies, about the stars and about the mystery of the universe.
    After they had said various things, the Saint asked him:
    – What are you doing now? What concerns you?
    – We investigate whether the universe has an end or not.
    – It has.
    – It has what ?
    – It has an end.
    – And how do you know that?
    … I went!
    The seemingly infinite space has an end, because only God is infinite. That solved his question. We did not learn what other revelations the Saint made to the astrophysicist and he was very impressed.

  19. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Nikolaos,
    An amazing story!

  20. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Owen and Michael,
    I sincerely appreciate your kind words. Likewise, I enjoy and appreciate your reflections. Your responses keep me going, helping me to feel that I’m a part of this community.

  21. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Nikolaos,
    I’m so grateful that you shared that story! I often feel silly when I attempt to bring into my comments my thoughts that tie my faith with the science I conduct. Actually, more often than not, I feel idiotic and ashamed for reasons that are difficult to say on this blog. What you shared soothes such pain.

    Thank you so much!!

  22. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    Dee

    You have the right approach to science and below a few more translated sections of the article:

    Among the main characteristics that led to his recognition as a saint, long before his official canonization, is noted “his extreme humility, his perfect love for Christ and his fellow man” and doubly added features unusual for a man, who stopped as a poor child the school in 2nd grade to work. Special mention is made of “his wise discernment, his inconceivable insight, his infinite erudition, the astonishing breadth of his knowledge – which was a fruit of Grace, a gift of God and not the result of study – his inexhaustible diligence and diligence”. These traits led to the designation of our so simple and close Saint Porphyrios as “Saint of technology”.

    In Saint Porphyrios, who was richly graced by the divine illumination from childhood, we admire the wise appreciation, which with deep humility he himself nurtures for the efforts of people of science, art or long empirical knowledge. Not only does he not consider these inferior, nor does he overlook them, but he wants and tries in his daily life to learn them.

    Just before he fell asleep, Saint Porphyrios, having predicted the revolution of the Internet, was full of joy and said: “How wonderful it will be when computers talk to each other”.

    A saint, who was not only not afraid of technology, but loved it, got to know it, could talk to scientists of every specialty, understand and advise. Everything interested him, only that man should not lose his constant reference to God, who blesses every human effort for true progress.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, the Joy of the Lord brings us all together. You educated me often in your comments. I can only ask questions. I am grateful that you answer. Reverent awe in the face of the created is the only proper attitude I think. You seem to have it. Please keep me and my family in your prayers.

  24. MWS Avatar

    Dee,

    As one who follows the comments closely, I am always enriched by your comments particularly. I’m drawn to the idea of God everywhere present, and filling all things; and I appreciate your comments that draw connections nobody but a hard scientist could find and articulate.

    Thank-you, again, for your participation.

    While I’m giving thanks, The comments section of this blog in general, is amazing. Fr. Freeman has created a real treasure here in this ministry.

    Thank-you all.

  25. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Nikolaos,
    These revelations about St Porphyrious are so edifying! They remind us that humility and love are the Lord’s most important and blessed gifts. This description of him brings him so close and warms my heart. I will bring his icon into my home and workplace and ask for his intercessions.

    Thank you so much for your kindness and encouragement!

  26. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Michael and MWS,
    Your kind words brought tears of gratitude.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My dear wife was in a auto wreck a few days ago. She was T-boned by a cat going at least 65 (rural intersection). Her injuries are relatively minor but still in hospital. She found out that of all the similar wrecks at that intersection over the last 20 years,–she is the only driver who got hit who survived. Glory to God for His Mercy!

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