The Great Thanksgiving
Once a month we have a Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, which is offered when the offering plates are brought forward. At the same time a Communion chalice and a paten with bread are brought forward. The white cloths that cover the elements that are already in place are removed so that all of our gifts are presented. The Prayer of Great Thanksgiving is an offering in which we return to God “all that we have and all that we are.” We ask God to receive our bread and wine, our financial gifts, and the gifts of ourselves, and we ask God to use them all for God’s purposes. In other words, we pray that God will take earthly stuff and turn it into sacred stuff.
This prayer is also a monthly Seder for Christians. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for all of God’s saving acts throughout history. It is a prayer that recalls the culmination of salvation history in the giving of Jesus Christ and it unites us with Christ and with one another by calling upon the Holy Spirit. In other words, the prayer celebrates the core of Christian faith: the gift of unity with God in the presence of Christ through the power of the Spirit. The Communion bread and wine are symbols of this gift that we celebrate. We take them into our bodies just as we receive the living Christ within us and anticipate that day when Christ will be all in all.
We repeat a shorter version of the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving together on Sundays when we aren’t celebrating Communion. We say the prayer in unison, and it is the same every week. I have us do this at the risk of it being rote, which I understand, is a concern. Of course, I never want the elements of worship to feel mindlessly routine. And personally, it is very frustrating to be a part of worship services that aren’t thoughtfully composed.
Still, I have us pray the short version of the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving every week because, whether we are celebrating Communion or not, the great truth of the gift of God’s presence in Christ though the Spirit remains the core of our faith and our hope. In other words, we still proclaim Communion even if our service lacks the ritual of sharing the bread and cup. We do more than dedicate our gifts at the offering time. Rather, we proclaim the story of salvation and our participation in it. We give our gifts to God, but we also give ourselves in thanks for Christ giving himself to us. Finally, we call upon the Spirit for a renewed sense of unity with God and with one another. Our praying in unison is meant to symbolize the spiritual unity that we request.
My hope in writing all of this is that you’ll have a better sense of the logic of our worship service. My hope is that you will experience the prayer – both the long version and the short version – differently next time you hear it. However, it also strikes me that the topic of “thanksgiving” is especially relevant as our stewardship campaign and our national holiday approach. What are we thankful for, and how is it that we express our thanks? I think it is important that our liturgy has something to say about this.