On Thanksgiving

Jennie Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth

Jennie Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth

The American nation, according to G.K. Chesterton, has the “soul of a church.”  When George Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving Day on November 26, 1786, he dedicated it 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.” The Thanksgiving holiday is a fine example of how the sacred is woven into our civic culture.  It has its origin in the religious observances of the Pilgrims and Puritans — fasting and prayer in times of crisis, and thanksgiving festivals in times of plenty; one particular harvest festival, at Plymouth Plantation in 1621, is believed to be the exact origin of our Thanksgiving.

Whether fasting or feasting, the Pilgrims’ lives were rooted in faith and hope in God.  Some of them thought of their escape from religious persecution into the New World as an echo of the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt into the Promised Land.  We recall that it was God’s intervention to rescue the Israelites that gave birth to the Passover meal; and it was this thanksgiving meal which Jesus was celebrating with His disciples when He instituted the new thanksgiving meal of the Eucharist (for Eucharist means “thanksgiving”) which we Catholics celebrate every Sunday at Holy Mass. “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19).  According to one contemporary theologian, Jesus was doing more than simply thanking His Father for the food; he was actually thanking God that He was able to offer Himself for our salvation.  In participating in Holy Mass, we in turn thank God for this wondrous work of salvation.

Philippe de Champaigne, The Last Supper

Philippe de Champaigne, The Last Supper

Of course, giving thanks is not just for Holy Mass and Thanksgiving Day, but for all days, all seasons, all moments.  Chesterton speaks of gratitude as “the very rock of reality,” a mystical insight that allows us to see this contingent created world as it truly is, “hanging on a hair of the mercy of God.”  For Chesterton, gratitude is not merely a temporary feeling but an entire habit of being.  We should be thankful to God at every minute for all His gifts—for the natural world, for beauty, for our talents, our health, the people that surround us — for our very existence and the act of being itself.  In other words, we should live gratitude, live thanksgiving.

This is a very difficult thing to do in our increasingly sophisticated, busy, and denatured world.  Today we are ever more absorbed in fictive digital worlds of our creation and ever less in touch with the real world God made.  How can we get back to the pristine sense of gratitude that the Pilgrims had? I feel that turning to the Holy Eucharist and especially to Eucharistic Adoration will help.  A lack of gratitude, it seems to me, is partly rooted in excessive subjectivity: becoming weighed down by the tangled mess of one’s needs and desires.  Eucharistic Adoration brings a welcome dose of objectivity: for a short period of time — fifteen minutes, say, or an hour — one makes the reality of Christ’s sacrifice and His enduring Presence the fixed central point of one’s life.  The only possible reaction to His world-changing gifts is gratitude, the gratitude of a little child.

And there’s still Thanksgiving, our beloved sacred/secular feast day.  Just as many of our culture warriors seek to “put Christ back into Christmas,” why don’t we strive to put God back into Thanksgiving? The day loses its meaning apart from God, after all; you have to give thanks to someone.  Or to quote Chesterton once more, “the worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.” And after we have seated Him at the head of our table, let’s be sure to eat and drink freely, to enjoy the fruits of the harvest and the warmth of our family.  For Catholicism is — thank God — a festive religion.

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