We will gather around a table this week. So much happened around a table in the Bible. Abraham met strangers. The Passover in Egypt. David almost lost his life. Jesus shared His last meal. The early church learned to be inclusive. And some day we will celebrate the return of the King.
To sit at a table is an ordinary thing to do, but it can mark a significant event as well. This week it will be special. We’ll invite special guests and have unique décor and an abundance of food. An extravagant celebration, actually. Thanksgiving is a time to pause and reflect on the bounty of God in our lives.
But the Thanksgiving table has not been regularly celebrated in our history, much as giving thanks is not always a discipline we do as often as we should. It was President George Washington who proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving in 1789. I have always assumed that was it, it became a permanent and beloved feature of American life. Not so, however. It had a rather bumpy history, and there were those not so thrilled with that initial proclamation. On that first Thanksgiving, Washington attended services at St. Paul’s Chapel in NYC and then donated beer and food to debtors in prison. That was it.
He repeated his proclamation in 1795, and other presidents declared days of Thanksgiving, but not consistently. Thomas Jefferson fought every attempt at proclamations. By 1855, 16 states celebrated Thanksgiving (not all on the same day).
When President Lincoln took office, he would order government offices closed for a local day of thanksgiving. But then on September 28, 1863, Sarah Jospeha Hale, a 74-year-old magazine editor, wrote a letter to Lincoln urging him to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.”
She explained, “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”
Unlike his predecessors, President Lincoln loved the idea. His predecessors had regularly ignored her petitions, which she’d sent for the previous 15 years. On October 3, 1863, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November would be “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” But against what backdrop? The Civil War.
Lincoln noted that, “In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity…order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict…”
Out of deep division and struggle, our permanent national celebration was born. The table became permanent. As you sit at the table this week, add that to your list of things for which to be thankful. As life gets hard, there is a table at which so much has happened. There is a table which reminds us of our faith and of our Savior. Gather at the table to remember its rich history and the hope of that one great feast to celebrate the King’s return. In everything, give thanks.