Thanksgiving is the first American holiday. The Pilgrims banned the celebration of Christmas and the 4th of July was not yet a significant date. The revelry of New Year’s was not a part of the Puritan regimen and they had not invented football yet. But, for all the nasty consequences the Puritans imparted to our culture, they deserve a nod of, well, thanks, for providing a nice story that has become iconic in America’s self-narrative.
Growing up, Thanksgiving meant going to my grandmother’s house for dinner. It was her day to host the family and the meal, especially the gravy, was always perfect. I was not yet a cook myself, so I did not know then what I have come to learn, that Thanksgiving dinner is an enormously complicated meal to cook and that only a person who has had a child pass through her loins has the innate managerial capacity to make eight dishes, all of them hot, come to the table at the same time.
Since my grandmother died, I discovered that traveling the Northeast Corridor on Thanksgiving was a very bad idea and I became a Thanksgiving orphan. I have found myself at many tables of many families and there I recognized what a great privilege and grace it is to be included in someone else’s celebration. Tomorrow, I shall dine with a neighbor and her family and friends. One Thanksgiving found me in Rome and ended up having two meals. I went to the North American College with a friend who is a bishop. He was also a vegetarian, so he passed on the meat-filled ravioli that began the meal. The turkey was served with sausage stuffing and corn. He ate the corn. Afterwards, I took him down the hill for some pasta at a nice restaurant on the Borgo Pio.
Thanksgiving, I have learned, is not a day. It is not even an act. It is a posture. Thanksgiving is about how one stands towards life. It is about discerning the wisdom that oftentimes what we first experience as a blessing turns out to be a curse, and that some of life’s difficulties and tragedies often yield the greatest blessings in time. It is about watching my friend David as he died from AIDS, but had the courage and the grace to begin each day, including his last day, by making a gratitude list. It is about standing in St. Matthew’s Cathedral with some 600 musicians at a conference as they stood and sang the English Te Deum, the hymn, “Holy God We Praise Thy Name,” and nearly brought the roof down with their full-throated, four-part singing of that hymn which never sounded so glorious. It is about going to Mass, the ultimate act of Thanksgiving, where we learn that some graces are so profound that we must kneel to watch them. It is about giving thanks for the whole of life, and for life itself, the ups and the downs, the triumphs and the troubles, with an attitude of hope and confidence.
For us Christians, that hope is rooted in the sure confidence in the resurrection of the Lord. Indeed, because we believe what we have not seen, we know we are especially blessed, as the Master said. But, we also know that the confidence in the resurrection changes the scope of human hope, it expands it exponentially. We are called to work for justice in this life, but the resurrection tells us there is a time coming when we shall not have to struggle for justice generation after generation. There is a time coming when we will not have to combat disease and despair and violence and war and hatred. There is a heaven in which God will be all in all, as we heard in last Sunday’s second reading.
Cultivating the posture of Thanksgiving is, to my mind, one of the most elemental, foundational tasks of the spiritual life. Indeed, the Eucharist is the most intense expression of Christian Thanksgiving. Just as I would not be the same person had I not experienced my grandmother’s Thanksgivings, or my orphan Thanksgivings, or my double Thanksgiving in Rome, we Catholics are not the same people we would be without the Eucharist. It calls on us to convert from ingratitude and self-absorption and, being a sacrament, it not only signifies that conversion it affects it. And, given the reality of the Eucharist as the commemoration of the death as well as the resurrection of the Lord, it reminds us that we are called to give thanks in our darkest hours as well as our happiest, in the midst of our troubles as well as our triumphs, and, finally, that beyond all of our human dramas, and in a certain sense within our human dramas because of our baptism, we can discern the divine drama, the eternal call to love that animates the Trinity and, through Jesus Christ, is extended to us as adopted children of our one Father. We might say that the Church is not so much called upon to give thanks as to say that the Church is thanks.
My musical tastes change through the years, but I have consistently known for many years that at my funeral I should like to have sung the hymn, “Father, We Thank Thee.” The text is taken from the Didache and the words are best sung to the tune “Rendez a Dieu.” Whenever I am feeling depressed or lonely or especially when I am upset with the misdeeds of myself or my co-religionists, I like to sing these words. They make my ill-temper flee. Tomorrow, before you sit down to table, pray these words. They do not disappoint because they point us towards Him who never disappoints and they invite, indeed, the words insist on, our adopting a posture of Thanksgiving that is, to my mind, the first and surest step a disciple can take:
Father, we thank thee who hast planted
Thy holy Name within our hearts.
Knowledge and faith and life immortal
Jesus thy Son to us imparts.
Thou, Lord, dist make all for they pleasure,
Didst give us food for all our days,
Giving in Christ the Bread eternal;
Thine is the power, be thine the praise.
Watch o’er thy Church, O Lord, in mercy,
Save it from evil, guard it still,
Perfect it in thy love unite it,
Cleansed and conformed unto the will.
As grain once scattered on the hillsides,
Was in this broken bread made one,
So from all lands thy Church be gathered,
Into thy kingdom by thy Son.