A Gathering Voices Post by Don McKim
The end of November each year brings three events. One is Thanksgiving Day in the United States; the other two are the end and the beginning of the church year.
Thanksgiving Day is a well-established American institution, complete with all the trappings of “grandmother’s house,” the festive meal of turkey and trimmings, along with all other family “traditions.” For some, it is the favorite holiday of the year—no gifts to give—just enjoy!
Thanksgiving is a day whose name means “gratitude,” with roots reaching back in the North American continent to communal celebrations for God’s blessings, given, and the response of those heeded the hymn’s invitation: “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” (The Presbyterian Hymnal, #551).
The conclusion of the church year is designated “Christ the King/Reign of Christ” Sunday, in which we mark the end of the liturgical year with the ringing affirmation that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:11) and that the end of history will be marked by proclamation of the seventh angel in the book of Revelation: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15)! This is an ultimate affirmation of Christian hope, pulling us ahead into God’s future and giving us the comfort and assurance of God’s power and presence with us, eternally.
Our human response to the coming reign of Christ is thankfulness and gratitude. How could it be otherwise? Deep within us is God’s promise that the life of the world and our own lives—with all their “zigs and zags” are given meaning by our participation in Christ’s reign. Christ is reigning now; and definitively in the future, even as we pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the new liturgical year. Advent is the time of expectancy and hope as we anticipate the coming of God’s Messiah in the baby born in Bethlehem, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. The church waits on “tiptoe” for the coming of the Christ child in whom salvation and eternal life is found. Christ’s coming is the sheer gift of God’s grace, given to sinful people; and to the world which needs a savior from all sin. Advent is grace as we await the sure-coming of God’s “indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
These three days in the civic and church calendar point us to the great rhythm of the Christian life: Grace and Gratitude. These are the movements which define who we are as Christians: those who receive God’s gifts; and who respond in gratitude.
Those in the Reformed theological tradition know this rhythm within our bones. Noted Reformation scholar, Brian Gerrish shows in Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (rpt. Wipf & Stock, 2002) how Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper embraces these movements. Grace and gratitude bring Calvin’s “teaching on the Lord’s Supper into harmony with other parts of the whole. In itself, the meal is a gift of God, but—like every girt—it is also an invitation to give thanks.” Gerrish quotes Calvin’s earliest edition of the Institutes (1536), where he wrote: “In this sacrament…the Lord recalls the great bounty of his goodness to our memory and stirs us up to acknowledge it; and at the same time he admonishes us not to be ungrateful for such lavish liberality, but rather to proclaim it with fitting praises and to celebrate it by giving thanks” (Gerrish, 19). God feeds us in the Supper, the “spiritual banquet,” and we respond in deepest gratitude, thanks, and praise!
Gerrish goes on to note that the “answering gratitude” of God’s children to God’s liberality is “not only the theme of the Lord’s Supper but a fundamental theme, perhaps the most fundamental theme, of an entire system of theology.” For, “it conveys, as nothing else can, the heart of Calvin’s perception of God, humanity, and the harmony between them that was lost by Adam and restored by Christ. The cardinal role of grace and gratitude is not surprising, since piety or godliness, as Calvin understands it, is grateful acknowledgement of the father’s gifts….The holy banquet is simply the liturgical enactment of the theme of grace and gratitude that lies at the heart of Calvin’s entire theology, whether one chooses to call it a system or not. It is, in short, a ‘eucharistic’ theology” (Gerrish, 20).
When I talk about the Christian life with church folks and discuss this theme, I ask them to experience it this way. Though I am not “big” on physical “expressions,” it is helpful if they envision the Christian life by closing their eyes and “breath in” while thinking: “Grace;” and “breathe out” while thinking “Gratitude.” This is the heartbeat of the Christian faith, expressed in our very act of breathing itself—the life-giving activity!
Grace and gratitude constitutes who we are as children of God!