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Thanksgiving Day
November 26, 2020

Click here to watch this homily (begins at 28:05).


    Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday but I think of it as our one-and-only national holy day, unique among our national observances because it puts God squarely in the picture. It’s God we’re giving thanks to, after all!

     Thanksgiving, as we know, got its start in the Massachusetts Bay colony in November of 1621. After a harrowing crossing of the Atlantic, a group of religious separatists arrived at Plymouth where they endured a bitterly cold winter.  When spring and summer came, some friendly natives helped them to grow crops, catch fish, and hunt game. By fall, they had something to celebrate and, being a God-fearing people, they celebrated by turning to God to give thanks.

     That was the first Thanksgiving.  The idea caught on but it took almost 250 years before it was officially enshrined in the life of the nation. That didn’t happen until 1863 during the 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 nearly 160 years ago carry a message we need to hear again at this particular moment in our nation’s history? In its 244 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 harmony and unity. And then there is this moment - this moment in the wake of a bitter election 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 scene. It’s almost as if we forgot who we were, forgot how to be Americans, forgot the meaning of our national motto, “E pluribus unum.” 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 first need to 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 laziness we may have evidenced by not carefully studying the issues and getting the facts, any credence we may have given to fabrications or deliberate misrepresentations, 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.

     And then, my friends, we need to pray. Pray for our outgoing President. Pray for our incoming President and his Vice-President and those who will govern with him. Pray for a smooth transition to a new administration when, until only a couple of days ago, there has been little resembling a transition. But, most of all, we need to pray for an end to the blatant assaults on our democracy and for the healing of the dreadful divisions that are tearing our country apart.

     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 arise 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 to the God who loves us and always challenges us to be our best selves, the God who, in Jesus, shows us how to love, to reconcile, to forgive, and to hope; the God of Mary’s Magnificat whose mercy is from age to age, the God who casts down the mighty from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, and fills the hungry with good things. And we open our hearts to each other, too, knowing that, for all our differences, there is far more that unites us 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 those who have far less to be thankful for than we do.

     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 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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Seattle, Washington  98104
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