The Cornucopia (“Horn of Plenty”) is one of our most familiar symbols of Thanksgiving.  This large, funnel-shaped container is filled to overflowing with all sorts of fruits and vegetables, the result of a good harvest. Psalm 65 is a hymn of praise to God for providing the weather conditions for making a bountiful harvest possible:

You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the  river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it.

You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth.

You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness.

The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy. (Psalm 65:9-13)

After three years of drought, Californians may have a hard time identifying with some of the psalm’s wet and wonderful images. This kind of lush harvest may not have been common in the experience of the ancient poet who wrote these words either, for Palestine has a climate that in many years provides barely enough rainfall to support its population. So the psalm is more a statement of faith than of fact. At some harvest celebrations, the cornucopia was empty.

In a way, an empty cornucopia is a more significant symbol than a full one.  It may not have in it much to be thankful for,

but it still has the shape of thanksgiving.  With its wide open mouth, it’s ready to receive any blessings the Lord may send along.  If the cornucopia loses its thanksgiving shape and collapses, it will not be able to accept blessings when they come along.  If we remain thankful during times when the harvest is bleak, we are keeping our shape ready to embrace the good harvest fully when it finally comes.  Then we’ll “shout and sing together for joy.”

In the American folk opera “Porgy and Bess,” Porgy sings his song, which outlines his philosophy of life:

Oh, I got plenty o’ nuttin’
And nuttin’s plenty for me
I got no car, got no mule
I got no misery

De folks wid plenty o’ plenty
Got a lock on de door
‘Fraid somebody’s a-goin’ to rob ’em
While dey’s out a-makin’ more
What for?

Even though his cornucopia was empty, he maintained its thanksgiving shape by affirming, “Nuttin’s plenty for me.”  And surprisingly, he discovered that there were some wonderful free things in life that resided in his “empty”cornucopia: “Got my gal, got my Lawd, got my song, got Hebben the whole day long.”

You’ve probably heard a person respond  with a sarcastic “Thanks for nothing!” when someone declines to give them what they ask for.  Well, when we learn to say the same words without the sarcasm, we’ve come to a place of true thanksgiving — “Thanks for nothing, because nothing’s plenty for me. My cornucopia is empty, but, by God’s grace,  it’s still thanksgiving-shaped.”

— Pastor George Van Alstine