This is the time of year when we turn our hearts more fervently to gratitude, contemplating the acts of service, sacrifice, and heroism that have made our lives free and prosperous. Thanksgiving has been a predominant theme of festivals, feast days, holidays, and holy days for centuries.
Perhaps the longest-lived celebration of gratitude and thanksgiving is Passover. What’s the origin of Passover and what’s its connection to modern day Thanksgiving and our covenants with God?
Roots in Egypt
After years of slavery and oppression in the land of Egypt, God heard the cries of His people the Israelites. He sent Moses as a deliverer from the mighty hand of Pharaoh, who had resiliently denied God His people by refusing to give them freedom. Finally, God decreed that all firstborn males in the land of Egypt would die, both of humans and animals. The only escape was to take the sacrificial blood of a male lamb without blemish and smear the blood on the door lintels as a marker of a covenantal, believing family. That night the destroying angel passed over those who had applied the atoning blood to homes. Hence the name Passover came to be applied to this event. God saved His people with a demonstration of power that convinced a false god, Pharaoh, to let the Israelites go.
God established Passover as an enduring memorial of gratitude for His people to remember through a ritualized meal. Every year since then, in every generation, Israelites and their descendants have celebrated this defining moment of their spiritual heritage by eating a sacred meal which included partaking of the sacrificed flesh of an unblemished male lamb (symbolically representing the future Savior) and bread and wine. As one of the most important holidays/holy days in the ancient and modern Israelite calendar, Passover is a day of swelling feelings of thanksgiving to God, who has saved and preserved His people.
Passover and the Sacrament
As an observant Jew, Jesus took the pilgrimage to Jerusalem yearly to celebrate in thanksgiving this holy day of Passover. His last meal with His disciples was none other than the highly symbolic Passover meal. What crossed through the mind of Jesus, who was the true Lamb of God that would save the penitent from physical and spiritual bondage, as He ate of the sacrificial lamb in gratitude to God who had saved His people from the physical bondage of Egypt?
It was at this meal of gratitude that the sacrament was also introduced. After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, believers made the sacrament the centerpiece of their regular weekly worship, and continue to do so today. The sacrament goes by many names, including Communion, Lord’s Supper, Holy Supper, and Eucharist.
This last-mentioned name, Eucharist, is probably the most significant.
Eucharist is a Greek word that means thanks, thanksgiving, gratitude, or grateful. What is the purpose of the weekly Eucharist, or as we refer to it in the Church, sacrament? We know it is to express deep gratitude to God for salvation and to renew the covenant relationship God offered His obedient children. But what exactly is that covenant relationship?
The Old and New Covenants
We call the major sections of the Bible respectively the Old Testament and New Testament. But better names might be Old Covenant and New Covenant. The “Old Covenant” is enshrined in the Law of Moses and the covenant God made with His people at Sinai after their salvation from Egypt. Jesus, as the “new Moses,” brought forward the “New Covenant” of His body and blood. Even today those who partake of His emblems and follow Him enduringly to the end will be brought back into His presence. That is the New Covenant.
The New Covenant was not originally contained in book texts but was lived out through the grateful (Eucharist) actions of Christians participating in the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice. The New Covenant is enacted, symbolized, made alive, and remembered each week at the Eucharist, or sacrament, which is a celebration of thanksgiving.
The ritual of gratitude, that is, the reenacting of the sacrifice of Jesus, is more important than reading about it. That is why the most central act in all of Christianity is the symbolic partaking of the sacrifice of Jesus. The New Covenant is alive as we express our gratitude (Eucharist) for His saving love, as Elder Oaks shared in October 2008 general conference: “The ordinance of the sacrament makes the sacrament meeting the most sacred and important meeting in the Church.”
As you participate in this holiday season of Thanksgiving, and especially when you celebrate God’s saving acts when you partake of the Eucharist (sacrament), remember that these are acts of covenantal renewal. God wants to be our God and He wants us to be His people. God’s Old Covenant has been refreshed in the New Covenant through Jesus Christ and the Eucharist (or thanksgiving) is the embodiment and the enlivening of that New Covenant.
[To learn more about the role of thanksgiving (Eucharist) in the New Covenant established by Jesus, see Consuming the Word: The New Testament and the Eucharist in the Early Church, Scott Hahn (Image), 2013.]