Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States, and it’s a good time to remember that God is at the center of the holiday. I don’t mean simply in the way that He is at the center of all of our days. I mean that Thanksgiving Day makes no sense without God.
The most important question that we should be asking to understand the celebration is “Who are we thanking this Thanksgiving?” After all, think about what the word “thanks” means. The dictionary definition is that it’s “to express gratitude, appreciation, or acknowledgment to,” and the definition notes that the verb needs an object. This is even more obvious with the word “Thanksgiving.” If we are giving thanks, to Whom are we giving it?
But to answer the question “Who are we thanking?” we need to ask another question: “What are we thankful for?” After all, if you don’t know what you’re saying thanks for, you won’t know who to thank.
The original thanksgiving celebrations were very clear in answering both of these questions. The first very Thanksgiving in the New World was actually a Mass, celebrated in St. Augustine’s, Florida, back in 1565 (long before the Pilgrims ever arrived upon our shores). And of course, the various days of Thanksgiving offered by the Pilgrims and others after this were days set aside to give thanks to God for His many blessings. It’s true that these were times of saying thank you to one another as well, but the focus was on God, from Whom all good things come.
The modern Thanksgiving was established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. In it, he calls for this Thursday to be set aside as
“a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”
These words strike me as particularly relevant right now.
Do we find ourselves in a land wounded by national perverseness and disobedience? Of course. The First Reading for Thanksgiving Day (Sirach 50:22-24) calls us to “bless the God of all, who has done wondrous things on earth; Who fosters people’s growth from their mother’s womb.” How do we treat the child in the womb in America? Not so well. According to the CDC, we abort 700,000 unborn children per year – and that number is actually too low, because it’s not counting places like California, that don’t report their abortion numbers to the CDC.
But even at “just” 700,000, that’s more than the entire city of Washington, D.C., or Boston, or Kansas City. To understand the scope of the evil of abortion, imagine that each year, one of those cities was utterly exterminated. And imagine that the Supreme Court responded by declaring that it wasn’t just legal to kill these people, but a Constitutional right, as if that’s what our nation’s Founders meant for America to stand for.
And of course there are all countless other examples of this national perversity. To simply proclaim the truth about the nature of man and woman today, or about marriage, or sexuality, these things are increasingly ostracized as politically incorrect “hate speech.” As the Lord warns through the Prophet Isaiah, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).
But it’s more than just this. For the last fifteen years, we’ve been in a state of perpetual war. We know what Lincoln meant by about “widows, orphans, mourners, [and] sufferers,” the human costs of this constant bloodshed.
Domestically, while we don’t have a country in torn between blue and gray, as in the Civil War, we do have a painful and ugly cultural divide between blue and red. Partisanship is perhaps the worst it’s been since Lincoln’s own time.
So we are painfully aware both of the need for humble penitence, as Lincoln prescribed, and the need for God to restore us to “the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.” And here we come to the ultimate cause of our rejoicing.
As awful as we have been – individually, as sinners who so often made war against God; and as a country that has so frequently failed to live as “one nation, under God” – the Lord God has not withdrawn His hand of blessing. He continues to bless us abundantly. And so, while we do not overlook or ignore our shortcomings and our unworthiness, we recognize that God has poured out His grace upon us nevertheless.
The Gospel is a reminder that no matter how sick we are, no matter how deep the leprosy of our souls, Jesus can heal us, and He wants to heal us. Indeed, He has healed us, as the Second Reading (1 Corinthians 1:3-9) reminds us, pouring out the gifts of grace upon us. While we thank Him for our national freedoms and the rest, the greatest gifts He has given are the spiritual ones: dying for our sins, making us sons and daughters of God, making us citizens of Heaven, filling us with grace.
We haven’t always followed God, and we can’t lay any claim to His great gifts. And yet He gives them to us anyway. Let’s take the opportunity this Thanksgiving to rejoice in that fact and offer up our thanks.