Thanksgiving with Saints Philemon and Apphia

lots of food on a table

This holy couple offers four lessons for your feast.

As we all know, Thanksgiving can also bring stress. Not enough time to get it all done, exhausting shopping and travel, messes to clean up, and back-burner tensions heating up all threaten to deplete your spirit during this week of celebration. This joyful but demanding week is the perfect time to invite into your lives two November saints: Philemon (fuh-LEE-mun) and Apphia (AF-ee-uh). November 22 is the feast day of this New Testament husband and wife, and it happens to also be the earliest possible date for Thanksgiving; however, November 22 more frequently lands on a Thanksgiving preparation day.

Saints Philemon and Apphia, a couple from Colossae (an unexcavated city in present-day Turkey), are the recipients (along with their probable son, Archippus) of a letter from Paul, which has been named the Letter to Philemon, but is usually referred to as simply “Philemon.” The biblical book of Philemon is so short that it doesn’t have any chapters—only verses, 25 in all. Despite being such a short book in the Bible, some very handy insights can be gleaned from Philemon and Apphia within the letter and, with some effort, can be applied to Thanksgiving get-togethers.

Lesson 1: Keep Your Home God-Centered

To Philemon, our co-worker, . . . to Apphia our sister, . . . and to the church at your house (Phlm 1-2).

We learn very early on in this letter (verses 1-2) that Philemon and Apphia had a house church at their home. Because there were no official church structures yet during this first century of Christianity, people’s homes were frequently used. This was a generous and impressive gesture on the part of Philemon and Apphia. Apparently, God was so important to this couple that they warmly welcomed the Christians of Colossae into their home so they could pray and worship as community. If you will be hosting Thanksgiving this year, try to remember Philemon and Apphia’s house church and see if you can work God into the picture.

Arranging for a home Mass would likely be rather difficult, but maybe you can come up with some other ways to weave God into the festivities: saying a particularly thoughtful grace, placing holy cards or scripted thankful-related Bible verses at each place setting, or having inspirational music playing in the background. These steps might help to keep the day—and your home—marked with the Lord.

If you will be visiting someone else’s house, consider bringing a God-honoring gift connected to thankfulness or a religious family game to play after dinner (just one example would be the Bible edition of Scattergories). See if you can somehow quietly, gently create some space for God within the day wherever you go!

Lesson 2: Pay Attention to Elderly Wisdom

I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man (Phlm 9a).

Stop and be mindful of any elderly people at the Thanksgiving table. Perhaps they are not up-to-date with technology, clothing, or other current trends; however, they are living history and often full of classic wisdom. Rather than turning your head and rolling your eyes when they speak, maybe you should give them a listen for a moment or two.

When Paul wrote his letter to Philemon and Apphia, he referred to himself as “an old man.” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary asserts that Paul was probably 50-60 years old when he wrote the letter; in those days, 50-60 certainly was elderly. In this letter (verses 7-21), Paul writes about a runaway slave named Onesimus (oh-NES-i-mus). When Onesimus fled Philemon and Apphia’s house, he found Paul and converted to Christianity. The great (and elderly!) evangelizer offered some suggestions to the couple on how to manage their deserting slave. Although slavery was perfectly acceptable even among Christians at the time, the older-but-wiser Paul very gently nudged Philemon and Apphia to forgive Onesimus for having run away, and instead to accept him as a Christian brother.

It seems reasonable to assume that this couple listened to Paul, for it appears that rather than reacting with resentment and destroying the letter, the letter survived and was copied over and over, and was eventually selected to be placed in the final form of the Bible. If you tend to automatically disregard Grandma’s counsel or discreetly chuckle at Uncle Frank’s long-ago stories, try to make yourself pause and wait a bit, pray a bit. There just might be some surprising wisdom in their words which might, in turn, offer a healthy opportunity for true growth.

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Lesson 3: Look at Others with New Eyes

Welcome him [Onesimus] as you would me (Phlm 17b).

Because Onesimus was a slave, he probably experienced a fair amount of snubbing and rejection. Paul’s encouragement to Philemon and Apphia to forgive and accept this person with such a lowly status may have been unthinkable to many in ancient Colossae. However, Paul’s urging to change their attitudes toward their slave could prompt us now to glance around the Thanksgiving table. Is there someone who tends to be disregarded, scorned, or discreetly (or obviously) ridiculed? Is there someone at the table whom you struggle to like or accept? If there is someone you have been impolite to, say a quick prayer, then try to look at him or her with fresh eyes, try to see Christ in that person, try to give that person a new chance in your heart.

Tradition tells that Philemon and Apphia did so with Onesimus. They chose to accept him as a Christian brother, which in turn allowed Onesimus the freedom to fully embrace and promote the faith. Onesimus, by the way, also ended up being counted as a saint; his feast day is February 15.

Lesson 4: Offer a Warm Welcome in Your Home

Prepare a guest room for me, for I hope to be granted to you through your prayers (Phlm 22).

In one of the last verses in this letter, Paul expressed hope to visit Philemon and Apphia and requested a room to be readied for him. If you will be hosting Thanksgiving at your house, imagine expecting a guest like Paul and prepare your home accordingly. Welcome your guests warmly; think of Christ’s command to love one another and serve with grace. Ponder what matters the most. Avoid prioritizing food or elaborate table settings and focus on people first.

If you will be going to someone else’s house, be a Christ-like guest. Be appreciative and helpful in any way you can. Treat your hosts with consideration and strive to help them enjoy the day, as well. Thanksgiving week can be a frenzied time, but try to remember that it’s about giving thanks to God.

So let God guide your week and day, and on November 22, try to set aside a little bit of time to read the 25 verses that Paul wrote to Saints Philemon and Apphia. See if this holy married couple might prompt a tweak here or there for your Thanksgiving. Ask these generous and open-minded first-century saints to pray for your Thanksgiving; that it may be filled with genuine gratitude to the Lord, and that kindness and acceptance may be more plentiful than food.

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