25 November 2018

Homily - 22 November 2018 - Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day

Dear brothers and sisters,

We Americans like our holidays, and we have distinctly American ways of observing them. Like most other peoples, our holiday celebrations often center around food, but, of course, we give our own flair even to this. As but one example, most non-Americans are baffled by our near religious custom of the cook-out on Memorial Day; they do not understand what it has to do with remembering our fallen dead. To be fair, most of us cannot explain the connection, either, and this shows something of a certain American disconnect in the observance of our holidays.

Nearly all of our American holidays are civic affairs: Independence Day, President’s Day, Labor Day, etc. Today, though, Thanksgiving Day, is different; it is our most religious holiday. Now, I know that some may object, asking, “What about Christmas and Easter, Father?” This is a fair objection, but, strictly speaking, these are not so much American holidays as much as they are universal holidays.

It is a curious thing that this most religious of American holidays has now become – against all reason and logic – almost devoid of religion, as if it were possible to give some form of generic thanks to the universe. Simply consider this statement written to me yesterday: “I like the point that Thanksgiving isn't a religious holiday (other than a possible prayer before the meal).” It is a comment that demonstrates both a historical ignorance and a complete lack of understanding of what it means to be grateful.

As Americans, we lost the religiousness of Sunday when, some decades ago, we abandoned the divinely revealed purpose of the Lord’s Day in favor of sports, shopping, and profits. How many Americans purposefully arrange their Sundays around these events and fit prayer in only as an afterthought instead of making the worship of God the center of Sunday? We likewise largely gave up the focus on the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus as the centrality of Easter in favor of new outfits to impress others and we tossed aside the poverty of the Child Jesus at Christmas in favor of a growing materialistic greed. To anyone then paying attention, these were distressing signs of a declining culture. Today, a recovery seems all but impossible.

Up until a few years ago, it seemed the simple purity of Thanksgiving Day had been preserved and kept safe from the heavy-footed encroachment of a cruel secularism. Eight years ago, the owner of a bed and breakfast in Pennsylvania said, “Thanksgiving is fairly quiet in the consumer-driven market of ghouls, glitz, and over-the-top commercialism.”[1] Today, it is clear that the same can no longer be said. How quickly we have abandoned even gratitude itself! Is this not why Jesus asks today, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine” (Luke 17:17)? Still, we are not without hope.

When Mr. Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Thanksgiving on October 3, 1863, he did so in the midst of the Civil War.  He knew, the traumatic destruction of life and property wrought by the war, but he also saw the bounty of the harvest and the prosperity of the nation, which led him to say, in part,

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. … They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. 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 to 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 are 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.[2]

Historically, then, it is quite false to say this quintessential American holiday of Thanksgiving is not a religious occasion; it has, as its foundation, a communal act of gratitude to God which is, by its very nature, religious.

Nor is it possible to give thanks simply to one another on this day on which we gather around our tables to share a feast. We may have purchased the food prepared, but we did not create it, this nation, or even ourselves. There is no one on earth whom we can thank for these gifts, because no one on earth has given them; nor is it possible to give thanks to no one; such an act would be senseless and devoid of meaning. The fundamental act of gratitude must above all be ascribed to God, the Creator of all that exists, “who fosters people’s growth from their mother’s womb” (Sirach 50:22).

While a great many Americans fail to grasp the essential quality of Thanksgiving Day, we ought not only give thanks for God’s many mercies toward us, but we ought also do penance as President Lincoln urged us to do. Our country remains greatly divided and a profound healing is needed in our land, both between fellow citizens and between citizens and the Lord. Such a healing can come about through acts of gratitude, through acts which recognize that I deserve nothing, but that everything is a gift from God.

Before we gather around our family tables, we have gathered at the altar of the Lord where the

Mass invites us to discern what, in ourselves, is obedient to the Spirit of God and what, in ourselves, is attuned to the spirit of evil. In the Mass, we want to belong only to Christ and we take up with gratitude – with thanksgiving – the cry of the psalmist: ‘How shall I repay the Lord for his goodness to me’ (Ps 116:12)?[3]

For whatever within us is attuned to the Spirit of God, let us give humble thanks; for whatever within us is not attuned to God, let us give thanks for the gift of his mercy that can heal this discord within us and bring us into “fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (I Corinthians 1:9). Amen.

[1]Thanksgiving – The Last Pure andSimple Holiday in America,” The Artist’s Inn & Gallery, 18 November 2010.
[2] Abraham Lincoln, Proclamation of Thanksgiving, 3 October 1863.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 13 September 2008.

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