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Thanksgiving Day
November 22, 2018


    
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, new friends, and new 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 agonizing throes of the Civil War, when a president with a large soul and unfailingly good instincts, Abraham Lincoln, made a formal proclamation of Thanksgiving as a recurring national holiday. He wanted (and here I quote) “to 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 more than 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, peaceful harbors. And then there is this moment. This moment - in the wake of two national elections unlike any I can remember, 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’ve forgotten who we are, forgotten 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.

     My friends, after all we have been through, we need to be together today, and we need to give thanks.  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 falsehoods, any laziness we may have shown by not bothering to search for facts and letting others define the issues for us, 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-speech, fear-mongering, toxic misrepresentations of the truth, the subtle and not-so-subtle defaming of entire ethnic and religious groups, and all the other sins that have found a home in the political landscape of our nation.

     And I realize that this is pretty heavy stuff for Thanksgiving Day but this Thanksgiving comes at a time unlike any we have ever known. And the thanksgiving we give should come from clear consciences and open hearts, 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: there is 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.

     Back to President Lincoln.  In his first inaugural address in March of 1861 as the country stood on the brink of civil war, he spoke these words which are every bit as important today as the day he spoke them:

     “We are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory…will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as they surely will be, by the better angels of our nature.

     Dear friends in Christ, we all know that “the better angels of our nature” did not prevail in Lincoln’s day and they are far from prevailing in our day. All the more reason for us to pray, all the more reason for us to celebrate this Eucharist whose very meaning is sacrifice and thanksgiving, all the more reason, too, for us to leave this place resolved to do everything we can to heal our nation’s wounds, to bridge its great divides, to restore civility and respect for truth, and to protect and defend all the voiceless ones who may have no other voice than ours.  We do have our work cut out for us. But before it’s ever our work, it’s God’s work, and God will surely be with us as we do it!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

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