(RNS) — “Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices. Who wondrous things hath done, in whom His world rejoices.”
Thanksgiving is not a Christian holy day, but a holiday in American civil religion. For many of us who are lapsed from whatever faith we nominally associate with and feel only occasionally spiritual, it points us toward the divine with that most basic religious impulse: gratitude.
Gratitude isn’t something I remember feeling in my youth. But I remember the hymns.
“We Gather Together” comes to English from the Dutch, for whom it was written as a patriotic song. But its near-unanimous inclusion in American hymnals of the past century helped make it one of the best-known Thanksgiving hymns.
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“Now Thank We All Our God” came into the Anglophone world from Germany (The tune’s name is still known as “Nun Danket.”) Its earnest faithfulness is all the more remarkable knowing that its lyricist, Bishop Martin Rinkart, likely wrote it during or after the disastrous Thirty Years’ War, the peak of which he was said to have performed dozens of funerals per day.
“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” is a 19th-century English harvest festival hymn. Like Jesus’ Parable of the Tares in the Gospel of Matthew, on which it is based, the hymn is both robustly theological and explicitly earthy: “First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear; Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.”
The second line of each stanza ends with a lingering note in a different key, inviting the singer to reflect on the word “home.” Indeed, the hymn points to the Return of Christ as God’s final harvest: “Gather Thou Thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin. There, forever purified, in Thy presence to abide…”
To a suburban church kid wearing a clip-on tie, “harvest” was such a foreign concept. In my native Central Florida, our major crop was citrus fruit, not harvested until well after Thanksgiving. The talk of harvest and “winter storms” seemed as hypothetical. These were imports from Massachusetts Pilgrims or more generally the Protestant yeoman farmers in colder climes who, I was always told, built this great nation.
But I can even tell you without looking that “We Gather Together” is #131 in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal. These hymns ring loud in my consciousness long after the other trappings of devotion have fallen away.
A residual snobbery about the liturgical flow from Ordinary Time, which takes up most of autumn in the church calendar, into Advent makes me loath to acknowledge the religious aspect of Thanksgiving at all.
But gratitude, itself a praiseworthy instinct and a healthy habit of mind, is also inherently religious or spiritual, and it has to be directed toward something or Someone.
Outside of church walls, Thanksgiving-tide hymns are the comfortable soundtrack for our nation’s civil religion, popular enough to appear in TV or films as a cue for Thanksgiving in the way the hymn “Abide With Me” is played in so many movie funerals.
Garrison Keillor, whose radio program “A Prairie Home Companion” was one of the last places in mainstream entertainment culture where hymns were often sung, performed “Now Thank We All Our God” with guests both reverently and joyfully around Thanksgiving, sometimes with parody verses.
Sung as part of a church service, these well-loved hymns are conspicuously uncomplicated, clearly Christian but lacking a muscular Christology, which is perhaps what makes them inoffensive to the broad cultural audience. In American churches they implicitly allow that the United States is not a Christian country, but recognize the impulse to give thanks for a land, and a nation, however imperfect, that usually enjoys relative peace and prosperity.
I’ve found hymns handy at unexpected moments when expressing gratitude is all one can do, yet we don’t quite know how. To my surprise, when my second child was born two days before Thanksgiving in 2014, I found myself singing “We Gather Together” to him as I held him in my arms. It was simply the first thing that came to my mind.
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I hardly considered it an act of devotion. But maybe it was.
As far as I had by then drifted from any tangible forms of Christian belief, affiliation or participation, “We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant, and pray that Thou still our Defender wilt be” were among the first words my newborn son heard.
For me, these hymns are all I have. But maybe they are all I need.
(Jacob Lupfer is a writer in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)