For those living in the United States, November is the month that we celebrate the federal holiday of Thanksgiving. This American holiday traces its roots back to the Pilgrims’ first autumn harvest. It was a means of giving thanks to God for the gifts of his creation. The center of the celebration is a large meal consisting of foods native to this land.
While this holiday is not technically a religious holiday, it certainly contains connections to our faith. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), “thanksgiving” is listed as one of the various genres of prayer: 1) blessing and adoration, 2) petition, 3) intercession, 4) thanksgiving, and 5) praise (see CCC §2626 – 2643).
In prayers of thanksgiving, we express to God our appreciation for the many blessings that he has given to us through nature, as well as through the supernatural graces won for us by Christ. By offering our prayers of thanksgiving to God, we fulfill the exhortation of St. Paul: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18; see CCC §2638).
Through the celebration of the Eucharist, prayer of thanksgiving has a particularly prominent role within the Catholic Church. The very term Eucharist is derived from the Greek word eucharistein, which means “thanksgiving.” This word is used in the New Testament in a way that recalls “the Jewish blessings that proclaim—especially during a meal—God’s works: creation, redemption, and sanctification” (CCC §1328; see Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24). This sacrament is called the Eucharist precisely because it is a thanksgiving offered to God for these gifts. The Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium §11; CCC §1324), and as such, it is the highest form of thanksgiving that we can offer.
Of course, there is a meal aspect to the Eucharist that provides a connection—even if a tangential one—to our secular holiday of Thanksgiving. The Eucharist, however, is much more than a common meal; it is first and foremost a holy sacrifice. “The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, a blessing by which the Church expresses her gratitude to God for all his benefits, for all that he has accomplished” (CCC §1360).
The connection between the Eucharist and thanksgiving is more than linguistic; there is a profound connection between the Eucharist established by Christ and the fulfillment of the Old Covenant in the New. Now, for good reason, Catholics are often aware of the connections between the Eucharist and Passover. Yet, there is another Old Testament precursor to the Eucharist that many are not aware of. Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a marvelous book, Feast of Faith, in which he offers a wonderful explanation of how the Eucharist fulfills the toda sacrifice of ancient Israel. Like the Greek eucharistein, the Hebrew word toda means “thanksgiving.” The toda sacrifice was a thanksgiving sacrifice that, like Passover and the Last Supper, also included a meal. What is more, the toda sacrifice—in addition to the sacrificial victim—is also “the only form of sacrifice which is concerned with unleavened bread.”
Quoting the work of the Old Testament scholar Hartmut Gese, Ratzinger provides an explanation of the circumstances that called for the toda sacrifice:
Gese describes it like this: ‘The thanksgiving sacrifice presupposes a particular situation. If a man is saved from death, from fatal illness or from those who seek his life, he celebrates this divine deliverance in a service of thanksgiving which marks an existential new start in his life. In it, he ‘confesses’ . . . God to be his deliverer by celebrating a thankoffering. . . . He invites his friends and associates, provides the sacrificial animal . . . and celebrates . . . together with his invited guests, the inauguration of his new existence.’
In other words, the toda was a sacrifice and meal celebrating liberation from death and the beginning of new life. So is the Eucharist.
Note that during the institution of the Eucharist Jesus “gave thanks” (Luke 22:19), which is reflected in the prayers of consecration at Mass. In the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary is made present. But this sacrifice also includes the anticipation of the Resurrection, the event of Christ’s humanity being raised to new life, which is the bases of our own salvation. It is by Jesus’ Passion, death, and Resurrection that we, too, are granted new and everlasting life. Thus, the Most Holy Eucharist is our sharing in the toda sacrifice of Christ, where we give thanks to God for delivering us from bodily and spiritual death. “As Gese sums it up: ‘The Lord’s Supper is the toda of the Risen One’” (Feast of Faith, 57).
Our participation in Jesus’ toda sacrifice during the Divine Liturgy also fulfills a prediction made in the Jewish tradition. “The toda of Jesus vindicates the rabbinic dictum: ‘In the coming (Messianic) time, all sacrifices will cease except the toda sacrifice. This will never cease in all eternity’” (Feast of Faith, 58). The Eucharist is the last remaining religious sacrificial offering in the Judeo-Christian tradition. What is more, as predicted, it will never end in all eternity because the Eucharist is a participation in the heavenly liturgy described in the book of Revelation (see Revelation 19:6-9). The Eucharist is not just the making present of the past (the Sacrifice of Christ); it is also the making present of the final and definitive future (the Wedding Feast of the Lamb). The Mass is a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom.
The Eucharist truly is the sacrifice by which we give thanks to Almighty God for saving us from death and giving us new and eternal life. As such, it is infinitely more important than our venerable federal holiday. We should therefore celebrate every Divine Liturgy with an even greater sense of gratitude and sincerity of heart. I encourage all of us—especially during this month of Thanksgiving—to contemplate this oft-neglected aspect of the Eucharist. May these reflections lead to a deeper appreciation for what the Eucharist truly is. And may we who are blessed to participate in the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Altar humbly and sincerely give thanks to Almighty God, the source of all grace and goodness!