Thanksgiving is one of the most meaningful holidays of the year: a rare, uniquely American holiday, in which the whole country sets aside a day of each year to express thanks for the bounties of God.
Of course, the idea of giving thanks to God at a family meal is hardly foreign to Armenians.
Indeed, Thanksgiving has been adopted by American-Armenians as another feast day. In many households, the traditional ingredients of the Thanksgiving dinner are laid out alongside the delicious items of Armenian cuisine—a marriage of Old and New World flavors that is broadly symbolic of our life in the diaspora.
But the idea of Thanksgiving has even deeper roots in the Armenian heritage. It is something that graces us every day: an enduring consciousness of the debt of gratitude we owe to God.
Think of the prayers we recite during our meals. We sit down at the table ready to acknowledge the gifts He provides us:
Jashagetzouk khaghaghoutyamp zgeragours, vor badrasdyal eh mez ee Dyarneh. Orhnyal eh Der ee barkevs yur.
Let us eat, in peace, this meal which has been prepared for us by the Lord. Blessed is the Lord in all His gifts.
And before we rise from the table, we give thanks again:
Kohoutiun yev pars datzouk geragroghin diyezeratz, vor uzmez gereguryatz yev liatzooytz; nma park havidyans.
Thanks and glory, let us give, to Him who feeds the universe. For He has fed us, and filled us. Glory to Him, forever.
These prayers—and others like them, recited by generations of Armenian Christians—are merely the doorway through which we enter a larger world of Thanksgiving to our Lord.
Backbone of the Liturgy
That world is most powerfully expressed in the Divine Liturgy. You might say that the idea of Thanksgiving is the “backbone” of our liturgy: it’s the beam that supports the architecture of the badarak; the common thread weaving all its parts together.
Among the earliest words spoken during the badarak is Psalm 100—one of the joyous “Thanksgiving Psalms”:
Aghaghagetzek ar Der amenayn yergeer; dzarayetsek Dyarn oorakhoutyamp.
Make a noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness!
After this beginning, it continues:
Mdek unt trounus nora khosdovanoutyamp… / Khosdovan yegherook dyarn…
Enter into His gate with thanksgiving… / Be thankful for the Lord…
From these early words of joy, the theme of Thanksgiving builds, gains momentum, and has a kind of fulfillment in the sacrament of Holy Communion. After we partake in the Body and Blood of our Lord, two beautiful hymns allow the congregation to express its feeling of joyful gratitude to God. The first of these proclaims:
Lutsak ee paroutyants kots Der, jashagelov zmarmin ko yev zayruin. Park ee partsouns geragroghit zmez…
Filled are we with your good things, Lord, by tasting your Body and Blood. / Glory in the highest to you who have fed us…
The second hymn is:
Kohanamk zken Der vor geragretser zmez hanmahagan seghanoh ko…
Thanks we give you, O Lord, who have fed us at your table of immortal life…
After this hymn, the priest recites a prayer of thanksgiving on behalf of the whole parish, calling on the many names of God:
Kohanam zken, Hayr amenagal… / Kohanam zken, Krisdos takavor… / Kohanam zken, Hokit jushmarid… / Kohanam zken, Krisdos Asdvadz mer…
Thanks we give to you, Father almighty… / Christ the king… / Spirit of Truth… / Christ our God…
These thanksgiving prayers were not part of the earliest Christian liturgies, which concluded with Holy Communion. But over the course of generations, our ancestors felt a need to give further voice to their deep sense of gratitude following the badarak—and these hymns were the beautiful result.
God’s Immortal Table
But let us return to Holy Communion—or the “Eucharist,” as it is called. Communion is the fulfillment of the spirit of Thanksgiving which runs through the Divine Liturgy. In fact, “eucharisteo” is the Greek word meaning “to thank,” and “Eucharist” actually means “Thanksgiving.”
In the original Greek texts of the New Testament, “eucharisteo” appears at key moments establishing the sacrament of Holy Communion. The Gospel of Mark says:
When [Christ] had taken a cup and given thanks [eucharisteo], he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” (Mark 14:23-24)
St. Paul uses the same word in his reference to the Last Supper:
The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread; and when he had given thanks [eucharisteo], he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24)
These texts show that Thanksgiving is more than just a pleasant holiday, a pious tradition, or an inspiration for poetry and hymns. Rather, Thanksgiving is one of our points of contact with Jesus Christ himself. It is a spirit that he exemplified, and that he shared with those around him.
It is above all a spirit that Christ urged his followers to embrace, and act out in their daily lives.
That is one way in which the Eucharist we take into our bodies on Sunday continues to nourish, inspire, and sustain us through all the other days. Thanksgiving is the spirit that becomes manifest in us, when we fill ourselves at God’s immortal table.
This week, we will all be reminded of many things for which to be thankful: our families; our health; the blessings of America; our heritage and our homeland. As important as these surely are, there’s something else for us to be thankful for, too.
Our Armenian word for the Divine Liturgy is “badarak”—which means, “sacrifice.” It is our most important reminder of why we need to give thanks. For tt was Christ’s sacrifice which brought mankind the gift of salvation. As Christians, that fact is our greatest reason for Thanksgiving. As the Gospel of John puts it: “God so loved the world that He gave it His only Son” (John 3:16).
So remember to give thanks for that sacrifice next week, when you gather at the table in the company of loved ones, to say thank-you to God.
—Christopher H. Zakian
Above: Leonard da Vinci’s immortal depiction of The Last Supper (1494). Was it the first Thanksgiving dinner?