Thanksgiving is one of those national celebrations that breaks down barriers and calls us to recognize our unity instead of those things that divide us. Different religious denominations will celebrate joint ecumenical services. Leaders of both political parties will walk side by side in a parade. Although the origins of Thanksgiving might be disputed, there is always the element of gratitude for the blessings that have been given to us.
Personally, I prefer the traditional story of Thanksgiving. The struggling and suffering pilgrims, newly arrived to New England, were attempting to survive in this new world. It was thought that half of those who made the journey from England died. It was only through the assistance of the Native Americans, who willingly offered their familiarity with the land and its resources, that these newcomers were permitted a chance of a better life.
There was a generosity on the part of the Native Americans who shared their knowledge. Perhaps it was in the Native American understanding that the gifts of the land belong to all. The Great Spirit gives his goods to all his children. Certainly the first Thanksgiving demonstrates that we need one another. But first and foremost, we need God.
On Thanksgiving Day, a sense of gratitude should capture our spirit. Remember the Gospel passage about the 10 lepers? They asked our Lord to be healed of this hideous disease. When suddenly they realized that they had been cured, only one – a foreigner, a Samaritan – returned to thank our Lord.
I know that many of us may be angered by this sense of ingratitude. We may wonder, “How inconsiderate!” Yet, God is owed our thanks for the many blessings we have received and often gratitude is not high on our list.
One of the most admired, if not the most admired, presidents in the history of our nation is Abraham Lincoln. In 1863 the United States was involved with the Civil War. Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving: “… I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”
Perhaps it is this sense of full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union that push so many of us to struggle to be home at Thanksgiving. Airports, train stations and our highways will be jammed with people trying to get home for Thanksgiving. There is a need to celebrate with the people we love, to give thanks to God for their presence in our lives.
I remember my first Thanksgiving away from home. I was in studies in Rome. Thanksgiving is not a national holiday in Italy. However, living in an American house with other priests, we captured the moment to express our thanks for God, family and country.
In many homes there are always some traditional family customs, a touch football game, the sharing of a favorite story of a Thanksgiving past. One family thought that it might be appropriate to forgo their family meal and serve the needy at the local charities food center. They all attended Mass and made their way to the charities center only to find it closed because many of the local restaurants were sharing their bounty by feeding the poor. No one thought to call ahead. Their memorable Thanksgiving ended up at McDonald’s.
It is all about the meal that is symbolic of our unity. In our Catholic faith, it is the meal that emphasizes our unity and feeds us with the body and blood of Christ. This generosity of our God calls us to imitate his example and to share his blessings with our brothers and sisters. This glorious sacrament is the Eucharist. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: It is called the Eucharist because it is an action of thanksgiving to God. The Greek words “eucharistein” and “eulogein” recall the Jewish blessings that proclaim – especially during a meal – God’s works: creation, redemption and sanctification.
As we gather together around tables of plenty on Thanksgiving Day, before we plunge into our meals, let us remember to bow our heads and give thanks to God who is the source of all blessings.