Thanksgiving. A time to be thankful, to celebrate the harvest, to share with family and friends. A celebration of thanks is done in many, if not all, cultures at different times of the year. It is one of the few festivals that can be claimed by pretty much all of the religious groups I can think of – it is no one’s exclusive ritual or creation. What strikes me about the act of giving thanks is that, despite our tendency to do so by making lists of what we have, we often need to do it much more when we have very little, be it materially, physically or spiritually. There is something strangely healing about giving thanks. It seems to provide a path to peace in turbulent times and somehow allows for a breath in the midst of a struggle.
This hymn was suggested by several people, but none in English! Not surprising, as it is an old German hymn written by Martin Rinkart in the mid 1630s. Rinkart was a Lutheran minister in Saxony who sheltered victims of disease and famine at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War. It is said that around the time he wrote this, as the only surviving minister in his city, he was performing up to 50 funerals a day. It is quite beyond me to imagine how these words could have sprung out of that kind of horror, but here again I am struck by the mystery of human strength and the power of faith.
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
The tune is attributed to Johann Crüger (1647) and was used by Bach in a number of his cantatas. It is a beautiful melody with very familiar harmonies thanks to Mendelssohn and I must admit to some personal trepidation making changes! However, it was also inspiring to think that for almost 400 years this hymn has provided a reminder to be thankful even when perplexed. To be cheered even when in the midst of this world’s ills.
Thankfulness is a bit of a mystery. It can serve to remind us of all we have. It can focus us on potential and opportunity. It can open our eyes to the smallest thing that carries us through whatever storm we find ourselves weathering. I wasn’t quite sure if I should include in this Thanksgiving entry a list of what I’m thankful for. When I read the words of today’s hymn, I feel a sense of thankfulness much deeper than something that can be listed. For those who have come before, for those I know now and for those yet to experience this beautiful, flawed world.