Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day and in preparation for what can be both a joyous and overwhelming day, Bruce Epperly offers us a Celtic approach to Thanksgiving. For a people who are experiencing a time of great anxiety, Bruce offers the Celtic vision of gratitude not as an antidote but as a a path forward. I invite you to ponder Bruce's Celtic vision as you prepare for your own offering of Thanks!
A Celtic Approach to Thanksgiving
Bruce G. Epperly
I Thessalonians 5:18 counsels, “give thanks in all circumstances.” This seems like a tall order for many people these days, given the realities of economic insecurity, high demand jobs, and institutional impotence and gridlock, not to mention our own personal challenges. Our situation, however, is neither new nor unusual in human experience. The early Christians were persecuted – some lost their jobs, others were imprisoned and martyred – because of their faith. The apostle Paul wrote many of his Epistles, including possibly Thessalonians, from behind bars. Yet, Paul exudes a spirit of joy and gratitude in all his writings, even when he is challenging the behaviors of certain congregations.
Celtic Christians also faced trials and threats, whether from harsh elements or blood-thirsty chieftains. Still, Celtic spirituality exudes a sense of joyful gratitude that is often absent from our lives. Gratitude is one of the key Christian virtues. Thanksgiving is the virtue of interdependence. It recognizes that we stand on the shoulders of others. Without the communion of saints, loving elders, supportive family and friends, and faithful spiritual teachers, we would be lost. There are no self-made persons, who have created their health or wealth on their own. The providence of God has guided our steps from conception, leading us away from threat and toward faithful abundance. Life, for the Celts, wasn’t always easy, but they trusted that the ever-present God was their constant companion in living and dying. God is the ultimate source of all gifts and graces in every season of life.
Thanksgiving revels in the beauty of life, and the Celts had a sense of beauty. They lived, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel proclaims, in “radical amazement” as they pondered sea and stars. They saw Christ’s spirit enlivening trees, oceans, spiritual companions, and our daily paths. Christ is the friend of the soul, every soul, the anam cara, who shows us our vocations and affirms our value in God’s earthly realms. In the rough and tumble life of Celtic pilgrims, each comfort was a blessing and every action merited a blessing, whether milking the cow, building a fire, traveling to a distant place, or cooking a meal. God’s spirit permeated every act, and every act was a response to God’s blessing of our lives. Thanksgiving leads to mission: gratitude for our blessings inspires us to bless others.
Celtic pilgrims could resonate with prayers invoked in many African American congregations, “I thank you, God, for waking me up this morning.” Waking up to a new day provides the opportunity for new possibilities and adventures, for play with children and good work, for the love of a spouse, and commitment to a cause. Gratitude for the day is grounded in a sense of providence in which God is with us every step of the way, inspiring, challenging, guiding, and protecting. Though this providence is gentle and non-coercive, it provides us with more we can ask or imagine. We receive manna enough for today, but not for hoarding. We share our daily bread and look forward to celebrations with friends and family. We rejoice in the day, knowing that fidelity is about gratitude and celebration, not apathy and hopelessness.
St. Brigid, who embodied the Divine Feminine in Celtic spirituality, envisages our heavenly home – the destiny of all creation - as a grand party with Christ as the host. She knew that gratitude is grounded in appreciation and sharing. Our abundance does not fully belong to us; it is intended to uplift the vulnerable in our midst and delight the spirit of those whom we encounter, giving out of our abundance in response to the abundance we receive. In the world St. Brigid imagines, everyone has enough because everyone is willing to share with their neighbor.
I should like a lake of finest ale
For the king of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food
For the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of the earth
And the food be forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast,
For they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast,
For they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place.
And the sick dance with the angels.
God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
And bless our human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink,
All homes, O God, embrace.
Gratitude opens the future and gives us hope in turbulent times. When we are thankful, we trust that even in the wilderness, there is a wellspring of living waters and bread for the journey. As Dag Hammarskjold proclaims:
For all that has been – thanks.
For all that shall be – yes.
Celtic spirituality gives thanks for today and lives into the future guided by God’s “yes” for each and all of us now and forevermore.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guideto the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.