This Thanksgiving I was fortunate enough to spend with my family, so no official preaching assignment for the holiday this year. Still, I thought I'd share my first "official" Thanksgiving homily as a deacon from five years ago. It discusses how our national day of thanks arose during the most divided time of our country, The Civil War. And while we are (hopefully) not quite there today, hopefully as we move forward and begin to heal the spirit of thanks of which our forefathers and foremothers tried to advance will endure.
Sarah Josepha Hale was an American writer and an influential editor throughout most of the 19th Century and while most writers would be thrilled to be able to claim having made one major impact on American culture, Sarah Joseph Hale can claim to have made two. First impact came in 1830 when she published the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb." The second impact; Sarah Josepha Hale is credited as the individual most responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday in the United States in 1863.
Of course, Sarah Josepha Hale was not responsible for the Thanksgiving holiday itself. Even before the now famous pilgrims celebrated the feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621, Spaniards conducted the first documented thanksgiving feasts in what is now the United States in the 16th century. And while days of thanksgiving were celebrated sporadically in different parts of the country in the first few decades of America’s foundation, there was no regular day of thanks set aside. Remember, this was a time before the Hallmark Company and Car Dealerships flooded our great nation’s calendar with an endless stream of holidays.
But Sarah Josepha Hale thought such a national day of Thanksgiving would serve as a great unifying element for the country. So in 1846 she wrote a letter to the then-President of the United States Zachary Taylor. No response. So she continued her letter writing campaign for the next 17 years. Finally, Abraham Lincoln, after reading one of her letters, set forth a proclamation on October 3, 1863 that a national day of Thanksgiving would be held on the last Thursday in November.
What is most fascinating about that proclamation is the timing. In the Fall of 1863, we were still in the midst of the Civil War. The war had been dragging on for over two years, which was about twenty-three months longer than most people thought it would last. The loss of life had far exceeded any war the country had fought in before, there was no end in sight, and no one knew for sure how it was going to turn out. With chaos and suffering all around, I can imagine that gratitude was probably the last thing on the nation’s mind.
If we stop and think about it, a true spirit of gratitude can actually be a difficult thing… especially in the worst of times. I don’t know about you, but if something is causing me a great deal of pain or if something is causing me anxiety, it tends to hover over my consciousness like one of those big spaceships hovering over a city in a bad sci-fi movie, blocking out all sunlight and vision of the sky. It is during those times when the admonition to look at the glass as half-full can sound like a pious platitude at best... or disturbed denial at worst.
But it is not only when things are going poorly. Sometimes it can be during those times of minor inconvenience when gratitude can be hard to muster. During those times when we can’t get an Internet signal. During those times when we get the middle seat on the airplane… during those times of annoyance when the first song on our lips is probably not “We Gather Together.”
Of course in today’s Gospel, we learn that gratitude can difficult even when things are good. As we know, when Jesus cured the ten lepers he did not only heal their physical sickness… he allowed these ten outcasts to come back to the community that had cut them off because they were unclean. He not only gave them a new life free of biological disease, he gave them a new life socially. That being said, how many of us can relate to the nine who didn’t come back? How many of us can relate to those nine who could not stop crying out to God in need… but then found it easy to forget about God when those needs were fulfilled. Even the best of us can forget to give thanks.
Which is what makes the establishment of the Thanksgiving holiday during a time of great Civil War all the more poignant because it is an acknowledgement that it is not only good to give thanks to God, we have a need to give thanks to God. We have a need to gather together to be reminded that, to quote Lincoln, “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful years and healthful skies.” We need to be reminded of the Source from which our bounties come… whether those bounties come during times of both great sorrow or during times great joy. We need a day in which, in the words of William Jennings Bryan, we acknowledge our dependence.
Of course for Catholics, this reminder does not come once a year but it comes every day we celebrate the Eucharist. Of course the word Eucharist translated from the Greek means “thanksgiving.” When Jesus took the cup and took the bread, HE gave thanks to the Father above… AND TOLD US TO DO THE SAME. To give thanks for all that God had done for the Jewish people throughout their history. To give thanks for the sacrifice that Jesus was about to make for us. And to give thanks for the continued action of the Holy Spirit within all of our lives.
It is true that we are limited beings… and as such we are needful beings. But we are lucky to have a God who not only provides but also listens to our needs. But on this Thanksgiving if we must ask God for something, let’s ask Him for a grateful heart. Let us ask him for a grateful heart no matter whether our lives are in a period of fruitful skies, civil wars, or (as is often the case) somewhere in between. Because there is a whole host of reasons of why gratitude can be difficult… but in the words of Cicero, “A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all the other virtues.”
Speaking of American History, please support the online campaign to bring the story of one of the great American Catholics to life in Isaac Hecker and the Journey of Catholic America by visiting https://igg.me/at/VIWfcvihNFU .