My memories of Thanksgiving from the late 80s to the early 2000s almost merge into one. Growing up in East Tennessee with a relatively small family meant little travel come the holidays. Every year there was a fairly predictable gathering of family that feasted on great Southern food and enjoyed (usually mediocre) football played in Detroit and Dallas (unless it snowed in the latter which made things interesting).

As we journey to our communal meeting places, we are also taking a pilgrimage into our past to remember how we have been blessed, reminding ourselves in the present of these past blessings.Since 2003, however, every Thanksgiving has been unique. College interrupted the routine, which remained disrupted due to later moves and other life changes. The local gathering in Tennessee gave way to cross-country treks, with my parents coming to Florida one year, my going to Tennessee from New York or Dallas another year. Family travel drawing dispersed groups together has become the new routine.

This year adds a new wrinkle to the annual pilgrimage. Rather than return to my hometown, my wife’s family is coming to us, here in central Florida. From Virginia and North Carolina and from elsewhere in Florida, her sisters, brothers-in-law, cousins, aunts, uncles will all converge at my in-laws’ house. And yet, despite our being in a new place with new people, Thanksgiving remains a celebration, full of family, food, and football. Thanksgiving also retains a distinctly religious feel, one that’s resonant with the pilgrimages often required for communal celebration.

The focus of the day is on showing gratitude or giving thanks. Intuitively we know that giving thanks implies something or someone receiving that thanks. While we can (and should) thank other people for the blessings they bring to our lives, the general focus of Thanksgiving implies reaching beyond the human realm to the transcendent. People speak of how thankful they are for blessings no other person is able to impart, yet offering thanks into a void is like writing a thank-you note, addressed to no one and to be discarded on completion. The exercise might do some psychological good, but Thanksgiving celebration extends beyond the solipsistic.

A journey through time might clarify this point. Throughout the ancient world, giving thanks was always done in relation to a deity or deities. In Greco-Roman culture especially, one was obligated to offer thanks to the gods. Gratitude wasn’t merely a suggested course of action; it was something their general well-being depended upon.

No one in the ancient world wrote more about giving thanks than did the apostle Paul. Most letters at the time included a section offering thanks for the recipients, but Paul went further than most. He discusses thanksgiving more per page than any other author of his time, Christian or otherwise, as noted by David Pao in Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme. For Paul, this attitude of thanksgiving was an outgrowth of his radically God-centered perspective, such that a life of worship and a life of thanksgiving were virtually synonymous.

Traversing the language barrier illustrates this point. In Greek, Paul talks about “giving thanks” using the verb eucharisteo, from the root chairo which means “rejoice” or “be glad.” The noun form is eucharistos, which means “thankful.” Many liturgical traditions call The Lord’s Supper the Eucharist to highlight this connection. In taking the elements of the Supper, we are remembering what Christ has done for us and giving thanks for that sacrifice. Viewing communion as more than just an occasion for thanks, many traditions treat the Lord’s Supper as a means of communicating grace to the recipients. This makes sense when we realize the Greek word for “grace” is charis. In taking the Supper, we must first remember what God in Christ has graciously done for us and respond with gratitude and expectancy for God to continue this grace to us in Christ.

Ultimately throughout Paul’s writings, there is a tight connection between grace (charis), gift (charisma), and thanksgiving (eucharistos or sometimes charis). As Pao explains, “Divine grace and the constant call to thanksgiving in Paul points to an undeserving act that alters one’s fundamental orientation and relationship with God.” God is the giver of grace, and our appropriate response is to be givers of thanks. Ingratitude may not be the root of all sins, but it is certainly a failure to acknowledge grace. And since even non-Christians feel the impulse to set aside a day to give thanks once a year, an ungrateful Christian is a walking contradiction. Gratitude isn’t merely a suggested course of action; it is something our general well-being depends upon, even today.

Our American Thanksgiving tradition could be viewed as a civil religious parody of the Christian practice of The Lord’s Supper. All of the elements are there. Especially clear is the gathering together for a shared meal and demonstration of gratitude for grace received. Whether or not the people involved realize it, by showing their gratitude and giving thanks, they are acknowledging themselves as recipients of God’s common grace. As we journey to our communal meeting places, we are also taking a pilgrimage into our past to remember how we have been blessed, reminding ourselves in the present of these past blessings. As Christians, we are offering our thanks to a God who also holds our future. His actions in the past are a promise and preview of his actions to come. Though we don’t yet know the details of those actions, the Thanksgiving journey to the past, recovering and remembering those blessings remind us of God’s character. That journey turns our minds toward the One who bestowed those blessings on us and who deserves our thanks.

The ancients rightly understood giving thanks as an obligation one owed to the gods. Even as our country might be trying to cut ties with Christian moorings, keeping a holiday tradition of showing thanks makes the effort futile. At the same time it is something to be commended in our wider culture. While we can acknowledge it is misguided to offer thanks to no one in particular, we should rejoice that we live in a country where a national day of thanks continues to be set aside. A step in the right direction is better than standing still, and when everyone is focused on gratitude, it is a short journey away to talk about grace and the God that gives that freely to us.

This Thanksgiving, while I might not be making my normal pilgrimage to my hometown, I’m still making my yearly pilgrimage back to ways God has blessed me in the past with the hope that he continues his grace in the future. I hope you will join me.