Jesus and the First Thanksgiving

The meal instituted by Jesus on His last evening with His disciples goes by many names. Each of these names emphasizes a different element of an observance rich in spiritual significance. “The Lord’s Supper,” perhaps the simplest of them, points toward the historical origins of the meal recounted in the four Gospels, and its proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection. “Communion” celebrates the spiritual fellowship that believers share with the risen Lord, and with one another through the Holy Spirit, as they partake of the elements together.

Of all the names, the one least familiar to me growing up was Eucharist. Perhaps this title remains unfamiliar to many Christians because of its Greek derivation, but the meaning is actually quite simple. The word “Eucharist” is simply a transliteration of the Greek verb eucharisteo, “to give thanks.” It comes directly from the opening words of institution in 1 Corinthians 11:23-24: “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”

Despite the somber atmosphere, this meal in the upper room was in a powerful way the first Thanksgiving feast. Jesus offered thanks to the Father for the gifts of bread and cup, but more importantly for the deliverance from slavery, commemorated in the annual Passover meal. During this celebration, His words about a broken body and outpoured blood must have seemed odd to the disciples.

Of course, the events of the coming days would make Jesus’ meaning plain. His arrest later that same evening led to a hasty overnight trial, ending with a sentence of condemnation. The following morning Jesus bore the cross that would soon bear Him, and that afternoon He died. His sacrificial death satisfied the penalty for the sins of humanity, fulfilling His prophetic words from the night before.

Of course, the story did not end there at Calvary. Jesus rose from the grave the following Sunday morning, vindicating His deity and His conquering of death’s curse. This victory is the true source for all Christian thanksgiving. Without the resurrection, we would have no reason to remember Jesus at all, much less His private words at His last meal.

In light of the resurrection, however, the first Christians had ample reason for thanksgiving, for Eucharist! The meal became a treasured part of life within the early church in obedience to the Lord’s command. Jesus’ death and resurrection transformed the Jewish Passover into the Christian memorial of deliverance from slavery, not to a tyrant Pharaoh, but to the power of sin and death.

Contrary to most contemporary American observances of Eucharist, the early church celebrated a true thanksgiving meal. The book of Acts records how after the explosive growth of the church following the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). This “breaking of bread” involved both a common meal shared together and observance of the Lord’s Supper. Times of fellowship around a common table led naturally to commemoration of Jesus’ sacrifice and eager anticipation of His return.

Although a full Eucharistic meal may seem unfamiliar to American Christians, the practice continues in other parts of the world. A friend of mine lived for several months in Switzerland. Expensive living conditions there prevented dining in restaurants, and as anyone who has lived alone will understand, eating at home could be just as difficult. Preparing dishes for a single person ultimately cost more than eating out, when leftover ingredients would spoil before their next use.

Rather than struggle alone, the Swiss Christians would gather for common meals after their worship services. One person would bring a loaf of bread, another a wedge of cheese, another a vegetable. By sharing with one another, everyone ate their fill and nothing went to waste. The same principle that sustained the church in Acts (2:44-47) sustained my friend and his brothers and sisters in Switzerland. As grocery prices continue to rise and unemployment remains high, American Christians would do well to learn from this example of sharing. When everyone receives enough, who can help giving thanks?

Soon we will gather together for one of the most extravagant (and expensive) meals of the year. The Thanksgiving holiday is an occasion for sharing and for grateful remembrance. As we come together around the table to count our blessings, we often think back to the Christian origins of the holiday. Some will recall the faith of Abraham Lincoln, who proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving in the midst of Civil War. More will probably recall the Pilgrims of the Plymouth and Virginia Colonies two centuries earlier, who instituted a feast in gratitude for the harvest, supplemented by the generosity of neighboring Native Americans.

The true Christian Thanksgiving, however, began centuries before. Christians gathered together and shared a meal of Thanksgiving, Eucharist, in recollection of the Lord’s death and resurrection. In the same way, may we offer thanks because “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival” (1 Cor. 5:7-8).

As we give thanks in our homes and in our churches, may we remember that “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). No matter how wonderful our thanksgiving feasts become, they cannot compare with the marriage supper of the Lamb that awaits believers. One day we will all gather together in the presence of our Lord, offering praise for His sacrifice that has enabled our fellowship to be complete.

Joshua Hays is a writer and a student at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.

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