We Canadians not only celebrate Thanksgiving a month ahead of our American cousins, we started doing so forty years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts.
An English explorer named Martin Frobisher had been trying to find a northern passage to the Pacific through the ice floes of northern Canada. He failed to find a passage, but he did set up a column and said prayers of thanksgiving. He gave thanks, however, not for a bountiful harvest, but for the fact that his ship survived the trip—another ship traveling with him was lost in a storm. Eventually Thanksgiving became a yearly national harvest celebration.
I read the first Scriptural mention of a national time of thanksgiving in Exodus 15 this week. Led by Moses and his older sister Miriam, the Israelite nation celebrated on the eastern shore of the Red Sea. They, also, did not celebrate a bountiful harvest and food in abundance. All they had was leftover bread, and it was only flat, unleavened stuff.
Instead, they sang about their escape from Egypt, about the drowning of their slave masters, and, of course, about their firstborn children being spared when every firstborn man, woman, child, or animal in Egypt died. There was plenty of joy, though no mention of turkey and all the trimmings, and even less mention of ham. That first Israelite national thanksgiving, like Frobisher’s, was a celebration of survival.
The same morning, I read this account in Exodus, I saw the devastation hurricane Matthew had caused in Haiti. The category 4 hurricane passed directly over the western part of this island, killing more than 130 people and turning cities into a gigantic garbage dumps. People are still mostly without electric power, running water or telephone. It will take years to repair all the damage.
I wonder what kind of thanksgiving Haitians will celebrate this weekend. Or million or more people who are desperately evacuating eastern Florida and South Carolina. There will be neither turkey nor ham. No cranberries either. Any celebration will likely be a celebration of survival, much like that first thanksgiving recorded in Exodus.
Survival may be a good thing for all of us to focus on in our thanksgiving celebrations. Instead of focusing only on the abundance of food and material things we have and enjoy, we could focus on the terrible things that did not happen to us. For instance:
For the yearly 40,000 kilometres of safe automobile travel, or the accidents we were involved in but we survived. For the fires or floods that did not destroy our homes, or which did, but from which we escaped with our lives. For the cancer that did not strike in our families, or which did, but we survived. For safe arrival home after travel abroad in high-risk countries.
We live in a dangerous, suffering world. The nightly TV news shows death and destruction in myriad forms. We sit and watch the horrific results of suicide bombings, school shootings, of devastating floods and landslides, of raging fires, of countrywide conflict and the resulting millions of starving, fleeing refugees.
May the TV news drive us to pray for those still in the midst of these disasters. And while we watch, let’s not forget to breathe a prayer of thanksgiving to God that He spared us.