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Thanksgiving Day
November 24, 2016
 
     Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday but I have always thought of it as our one-and-only national holy day, unique among our national observances in the way that it puts God squarely in the picture.  After all, if we’re giving thanks, we must be giving thanks to someone!

     Thanksgiving, as we know, got its start in the Massachusetts Bay colony in November of 1621 – more than a year after a group of religious separatists had made a particularly treacherous crossing of the Atlantic in their search for a place where they could freely practice their religion.  After a harrowing crossing of the Atlantic, they arrived at Plymouth where they endured a bitterly cold and brutally long winter.  Then came a spring and summer that, with the help of the local, friendly natives, allowed them to grow crops that they could eat, and catch fish and hunt game, as well.  By fall, they had something to celebrate and celebrate they did. Being a God-fearing people, it was natural for them to turn to God to give thanks for survival, freedom, friends, and hope.

     That was the first Thanksgiving.  The idea caught on and continued but it took almost 250 years before Thanksgiving was officially and permanently enshrined in the life of the nation.  That didn’t happen until 1863 during the terrible throes of the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln’s good instincts led him to make a formal proclamation of Thanksgiving as a recurring national holiday to (and here I quote) “commend to God’s tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife (of this war) and to heal the wounds of the nation.”

     President Lincoln unabashedly put God in the Thanksgiving picture so we are in good company, we who have chosen to begin this day in prayer, and not just any prayer, but the Church’s great Prayer of Thanksgiving, the Eucharist.

     And wouldn’t you agree that Lincoln’s words of more than 150 years ago carry a message we need to hear again at this particular moment in our national history?  In its 240 years, our nation has had its ups and downs, its moments of glory and moments of shame, its times of violence and times of peace, its pitched battles and its quiet harbors of unity and harmony.  And then there is this moment.  This moment - in the wake of a bitter, seemingly endless election that was probably unlike any other in our nation’s history, when the demons of our nature seemed to suffocate the angels, when honesty and decency, respectful dialogue, civil discourse and mutual respect all but faded from the national scene.  It’s almost as if we forgot who we were, forgot how to be Americans.  In light of this, Lincoln’s reference to “lamentable civil strife” has an uncanny, contemporary ring to it, and his call “to heal the wounds of the nation” is as much a call to us at this moment as it was to the people of his time, torn asunder by civil war.

     After all we have been through, we need to be together today, and we need to give thanks.  We do!  But before we give thanks, I think we need to first stop and ask God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of one another for any ways we may have contributed to what Lincoln called, “the wounds of the nation”: any fear or hatred we may have stirred up or bought into, any credence we may have given to fabrications or deliberate misrepresentations, any laziness we may have evidenced by not carefully studying the issues and getting to the facts, any prejudices we may have perpetuated, any walls we may have built, any bridges we may have breached.  Only when we own our own sins and repent of them can the sins of others be addressed -- sins like hate-talk, fear-mongering, the cavalier disregard of those who feel left behind, the wholesale defaming of entire ethnic and religious groups, and all the other sins that characterized this most miserable of election seasons.

     I realize, my friends, that this is heavy stuff for Thanksgiving Day – very heavy stuff - but this Thanksgiving Day comes at a time quite unlike any we have ever known.  And thanksgiving should come from consciences that are clear and hearts that are open, not closed or clenched. 

     With that in mind, we open our hearts during this Mass – first, to the God who loves us and always challenges us to be our best selves, our noblest selves, the God of Jesus Christ who shows us like no one else how to love, to reconcile, to forgive and, yes, to hope.  And we open our hearts to each other, too, knowing that, for all our differences, there is far more that unites than divides us: our common humanity, our faith, our love for God and for our beloved country. And lastly, we open our hearts to the poor and to all who are on the margins of our society – to all who have far less to be thankful for than we do.  Our coming forward to the altar in a few minutes with our gifts of food for the poor will be a small but real acknowledgement of our solidarity with them as well as our concern for them. And our reaching out to them can bring us together and help to blur the lines that divide us.

    We should be thankful for the opportunity this great national holiday gives us to reach out to the poor in love.   And the gifts we bring - the food, the money – we call them our own, but deep down we know that they are first of all God’s gifts to us, no more meant to be hoarded than God hoards from us the divine gifts.

     Dear friends in Christ, when we leave the Cathedral this morning, we will go from this altar table to our family tables.  As we do, let us recommit ourselves to build strong links between those two tables, and also to reach out to those who have no table at all.  And let us leave this place today with one thing in our minds and hearts – a prayer of thanksgiving to the God who in his mercy has done great things for us and calls us to do – if not great things - at least loving, caring, forgiving things.  “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” for “it is right and just!”

Father Michael G. Ryan 

 

 

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