The Thanksgiving Feast of the Church
Every fourth Thursday in November, citizens of the United States hold a national day of thanksgiving that is celebrated by family feasts. But do you know the origin and significance of the family "Thanksgiving Feast" of the Catholic Church? The observance of a meal to celebrate the intimacy of fellowship became an established practice since the time of Noah when mankind was first given permission to eat the meat of animals (Gen 9:3-4). It was a sign that those who had eaten or "broken bread" together and consumed a common substance had a mutual relationship. Likewise, for people in a covenant relationship with God, fellowship (communion) with God was celebrated in a sacred meal of thanksgiving that was a symbol of covenant union and continuation.
Throughout the celebrations of the children of Israel's liturgical life in the rituals of the Sinai Covenant, the covenant family was commanded to joyfully take part in communion meals known as the "thanksgiving," in Hebrew Todah and in Greek Eucharistia, feast (Lev 7:11-15/7:1-5). The Todah was a sacrifice of praise that celebrated covenant continuation and fellowship in a sacred meal in the presence of God: You must seek Yahweh your God in the place which he will choose from all your tribes, there to set his name and give it a home: that is where you must go ... and that is where you must eat in the presence of Yahweh your God, rejoicing over your labors, you and your households, because Yahweh your God has blessed you ... You must eat these in the presence of Yahweh your God in the place Yahweh your God chooses and there alone, you, your son and your daughter, your serving man and serving woman, and the Levite living in your community, expressing your joy in all your labors in the presence of Yahweh your God (Dt 12:5, 7, 18 New Jerusalem Bible).
The Todah sacrifice was a category of the zevah ha-shelamim, "offerings of peace," and the only communion feast celebrated in the presence of God within the precincts of God's holy Sanctuary. The Todah communion sacrifice was a "free will offering" and embodied a confession of thanksgiving which restored the offerer in peace and fellowship with God. The animal offered in sacrifice could be an unblemished animal from the herd or the flock, male or female (Lev 3:117). In the offering of a communion Todah, the covenant believer expressed gratitude for God's preservation of the individual during a time of great hardship or salvation from a life-threatening event. The animal was offered in sacrifice at God's holy altar; its fat was burned in the altar fire, and its blood was sprinkled around the altar. The meat of the sacrifice was then returned to the offerer to be boiled a pot within the courtyard of the Temple. Accompanying the bloody sacrifice was the non-bloody offering of red wine and loaves of wheat bread (Lev 7:1-5/11-15; 22:20-25; Num 15:7-10). In each case, the offering of the bread and wine became part of the whole sacrifice. The meat of the victim, the bread and the wine were shared in a sacred meal limited to members of the covenant community. Those taking part in the meal included the offerer, his family, and other covenant members who were present; the meal had to be consumed the same day the sacrifice was offered. Eating the sacred meal of the "thanksgiving" Todah in God's presence within the Temple was reminiscent of the delegation representing the community of Israel that consumed a sacred communion meal in the presence of God at the covenant ratification ceremony at Mt. Sinai (Ex 24:9-11).
It was a long standing tradition of the Old Covenant people of God that, at the climax of human history when the promised Redeemer-Messiah comes, all forms of blood sacrifice were to be abolished and that only the sacrifice of "thanksgiving" in the communion meal of the Todah would endure as the sign of restoration and covenant union with God. This teaching is still expressed in Rabbinic Judaism today: ... it [the Todah] would continue to be offered in the messianic era, when the rest of the sacrificial system was no longer operative (Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary: Leviticus, page 43).
The prediction of the end of all Old Covenant sacrifices in the era of the Messiah was fulfilled in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Roman army in 70 AD. But the prophecy that the Todah "thanksgiving" would continue has also been fulfilled. The "thanksgiving" sacred meal of the Todah continues in the New Covenant sacred communion meal that Jesus instituted at the Last Supper and which Catholic Christians call the Eucharist, "thanksgiving" in Greek (Joseph Ratzinger [Pope Benedict XVI], Feast of Faith, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1986, pages 58-59). The Eucharist, "thanksgiving" offering of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, is consumed by the faithful in a sacred meal in which the offerings of unleavened bread the red wine are transformed into Jesus' Body and Blood. The promise of salvation and everlasting life is celebrated by eating the sacred meal in the Divine Presence as Jesus foretold in John 6:54-56 ~ Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.
The celebration of the Eucharist, the sacrament of peace, thanksgiving, and covenant continuation in the communion Todah of the New Covenant, is a sacred meal that is a channel of divine grace and the source and summit of the Church's life that is expressed in its deepest mystery in the Mass of the Roman Catholic Church. The Mass is a worship celebration that is a foretaste of the promised heavenly reality. The liturgy of the New Covenant Church is patterned after the heavenly liturgy witnessed by St. John in the book of Revelation with prayers, hymns of praise, reading from the Book (scroll), incense, the priest standing before the altar, and most important, the sacrifice (Rev 5:6). For faithful Catholics, the one perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ present in the Eucharist nourishes and sustains the faithful members of Christ's family on their journey to salvation.
Eating the sacred meal in the presence of God at Mt. Sinai (Ex 24:8-11) was an event that prefigured the New Covenant Eucharistic banquet and the promise of the Lamb's Supper at the end of time in the heavenly Sanctuary (Rev 19:5-9). The Eucharistic "thanksgiving" meal is a continuing rite established by Jesus in the sacred meal of the Last Supper when He commanded His disciples to eat a covenantal remembrance feast with the words "This is my Body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me." And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you" (Lk 22:19b-2). The Eucharist is truly a family "thanksgiving feast" celebrated by faithful Catholics every day across the face of the earth.
Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014