Thanksgiving - the universal value of gratitude
Posted: Thu, 26 Nov 2020 10:51
Today, Thursday 26th November, 2020 is a huge holiday in the United States: in a land made up of varying nationalities, languages and traditions, Thanksgiving Day is a national day of unity. Now, as Americans, divided by a harsh and bitter general election, come together with family and friends, we pray that they gather today in unity and put their ideal of 'one nation under God' to the fore and party politics to one side. In popular legend, Thanksgiving is associated with those British refugees who crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower for a new life in North America. In this new land they were able to practice their simple faith in freedom: as immigrants into this vast land, tradition tells us they reached out to native Americans in a shared meal. Their journey reminds us of the journey of the Chosen People. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that the rest the Hebrews found in Canaan after leaving Egypt was not the final rest (Heb 4). There is a sabbath rest for God's people, the rest at the end of our lives. The journey from Egypt to Canaan was really anticipating the journey we all make as Christians. Just as the Hebrews crossed through the water during the Exodus, in Baptism we make the Exodus water-crossing to a new life in Christ. Metaphorically, we wander for forty years in the desert of this life, and at the end, we cross the Jordan into the Promised Land of Heaven. As these chosen ones of God met crisis after crisis, it gives us the fortitude to face the problems and 'wobbles' of Covid-19.
Today the whole US nation, including ex-pats living abroad, will join in this national feast. That follows a basic pattern: Turkey dinner with all the trimmings, family time, watching the 'Macy's Parade' on TV and sharing a energetic game of football—not soccer! While things may have to be different this year, indications from airlines show that travel is up as families make their annual pilgrimage back to wherever they consider 'home' to be. Every week, we are also invited to 'come home' as we gather, as a community of faith, to express our thanks in the mass.
When I lived in the States, I was lucky to share in the Thanksgiving meal, which I saw as a reminder of the traditional Christmas meal that we celebrate on this side of the pond. After we said grace, each member of my family articulated just one thing that they were grateful for—what a wonderful tradition that we could share in our homes this weekend as we begin Advent. It is an opportunity to think back on what we have been given, and to give something in return: thanks. Actually, "thanks" is too small a word. We are here to give gratitude. They should call this day "Gratitude-giving Day'. We are here to honour, with grateful hearts, what God has done for us.
Even in this crazy year of 2020, there have been amazing moments when people have been there for us unconditionally. As we come to terms with the emotional havoc that the pandemic has wrought, we can simply thank God that we are safe. So many, perhaps among your own family and friends, did not make it it to share this day. Whatever inconvenience we might be asked to endure over these next few months, perhaps you could offer it, in thanks and appreciation, for our wonderful NHS service. Very often, in our prayer lives, we spend so much time on our knees, asking for things. Pleading. "God, help me pass this test." "Keep me from throttling my teenager." "Help me find a job." "Protect my son in Afghanistan." We seem to be constantly asking for something.
We naturally ask God for support and help, especially in these difficult days. The gospel is filled with people asking for support: the blind man in Jericho wanted sight; Jairus needed his daughter to be well; the Roman Centurion asked Jesus to cure his servant. When faced with the ten lepers, Jesus wanted to bringing healing. In Luke's gospel, ten people are cured of leprosy by Jesus. Only one comes back to say 'thank you'; the one who comes back is a Samaritan, an 'outsider'. Tradition has it that Luke is the only one of the evangelists who was not a Jew and his gospel was written for those, like himself, who were the outsiders, the foreigners—the gentiles. Christ's message, Luke tells us, is meant for everyone; in the gospel story, not everyone comes back. Only that one, a Samaritan, returns to give glory to God. We don't know what happened to the other nine. Maybe they had turkeys to stuff or football games to watch! Gratitude is essential and yet so many of us do not always experience it: we share that amazement of Jesus as he cries, "where are the other nine?"
This year has made us even more aware of problems that make it difficult to find things to thank God for. We share the experience of a question that has been asked down through the ages: why do bad things happen to good people? We realise that thankfulness can be hard to express in hard times. Most of us know someone who is having a difficult time especially, during this Thanksgiving. The woman who is spending her first holiday as a widow. The father who lost his job and is worried about where he will find Christmas gifts for his children. Friends who have lost a loved one through the pandemic. Family, friends and neighbours who are hurting or alone. It is not easy, but thanks and gratitude is still needed if we are to be a true Church of the Eucharist, a people of thanks.The German mystic and philosopher, Meister Eckhart, wrote:
'If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is 'thank you,' that will suffice.'
This is why we gather at Mass, to pray those words, and to make them matter.
So, taking a cue from Meister Eckhart, let us make this something more than just 'Thanksgiving Day, more than an excuse to have a second slice of pumpkin pie and take a long nap in front of the television. I pray that this will be a special opportunity to join with our trans-Atlantic neighbours to make a new commitment to work together for the good of the global community in a spirit of unity and thanksgiving for all we have achieved together.
The very first President, George Washington passed into law the Thanksgiving Declaration:
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.
We need to follow that intention, so that we are prepared to serve and show devotion to others who need our support at this time.
When desolation surrounded you,
blessed be those who looked for you
and found you, their kind hands
urgent to open a blue window
in the gray wall formed around you.
from 'To Bless the Space Between Us', John O'Donohue
Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB