Ministry Professor Explores Thanksgiving’s Sacramental Roots
Date published: Nov. 21, 2016
Ann and Joe O. Neuhoff School of Ministry Professor of Applied Ministry Jim McGill,
M.A., is looking forward to November’s fourth Thursday.
“Thanksgiving is undoubtedly my favorite holiday,” said McGill. “My wife and I always
celebrate Thanksgiving with the same group of people — this will be our 36th consecutive
year, because we started in 1980 — so the day has a lot of fond memories for me.”
Though Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, McGill notes that Thanksgiving shares more
with Catholicism than simply the importance of gratitude.
“I’ve always thought of Thanksgiving as a kind of secular version of the Eucharist,”
said McGill. “On Thanksgiving, people spend a good amount of time before they eat
catching up and sharing stories, which is exactly what the Liturgy of the Word is
at Mass. It’s our broad story that unites us as a people. Then at a traditional Thanksgiving,
we sit down and eat a meal that is special and symbolic. That secular Thanksgiving
parallels in many interesting ways the sacred Thanksgiving, which is the Eucharist.”
McGill noted that the similarities of Thanksgiving and the Eucharist do not stop there.
Indeed, he brought to light a similarity that is deeply rooted, etymologically speaking.
“The word ‘Eucharist’ means ‘thanksgiving’ and is the heart of our sacramental celebration
where we offer in a formal way our communal thanksgiving to God,” he said. “The word
is extremely meaningful because it is rooted in that fundamental response to the action
of God in our lives, to deliver us, to heal us, to forgive us.”
When asked if there were any passages from Scripture that came to mind when he thought
of Thanksgiving, McGill was by no means at a loss, listing several instances.
“Moses and Miriam in the Old Testament,” he said. “Hannah’s prayer in First Samuel
at the birth of her son, Samuel. The Canticle of Zechariah. The major theme of many
of the psalms is thanksgiving. Mary’s Magnificat is in some ways a prayer of gratitude.”
Though American Thanksgiving only has its roots as far back as the pilgrims and just
became a federal holiday in 1863, the tradition of giving thanks is deeply rooted
in Christian scripture and tradition.
“You see it in the dispositions of the people who encounter Jesus in the Gospels,”
McGill said. “People who are healed or touched by Jesus respond in a manner that is
motivated by gratitude even if thanksgiving isn’t explicitly described. It’s a basic
biblical response to the graciousness of God’s mercy.”
How does American Thanksgiving wed the sacred with the secular? Through the parallels
of speaking and eating, of gratitude and sharing. Though a secular holiday, Thanksgiving
has maintained an aura of virtue, free of the over-commercialization that other holidays
“Thanksgiving is largely untainted by commercial or other kinds of ‘barnacles,’” McGill
said. “It’s a pure, straightforward day where people get together, spend time sharing
stories, and then eat a symbolic meal. All of that reinforces at a very basic level
— arguably even the sacramental level — a sense of communion with other people.”