Homily for Thanksgiving Day / Thursday, November 27, 2013
Thanksgiving Day is that quintessential American holiday – as close as we come in the US to an exercise of civic religion. The observance of a special day for giving thanks for some perceived blessing – be it an observance by the settlers of Jamestown in 1610, or the celebration of thanks offered by Pedro Menedez de Aviles here in our own state of Florida in 1565, or be it that celebration about which most of us were taught, the one in 1621 observed by the settlers of Plimouth Plantation and the native Wampanoags of what is now Massachusetts – such celebrations have been a part of our national and cultural history for centuries. During America’s first decades as a nation, there were various declarations of specials days of thanksgiving. As was typical, they were usually written with broad references to God or The Almighty or The Divine – Deist perhaps, but certainly not Christian, as some today would claim. Those early proclamations lead finally to the 1863 declaration by Abraham Lincoln which made the last Thursday of November an official federal holiday.
Students of history will note that this declaration of Thanksgiving was made during an unusual time, right in the middle of the Civil War – and it’s noteworthy that Lincoln called upon his fellow citizens to do not just one, but two things on that Thursday. The first is what you’d expect. In the proclamation’s words, Lincoln called upon Americans “to offer up such the ascriptions justly due to Him [to God] for such singular deliverances and blessings…” – translated simply, to give thanks. The second was a little more sobering, a little more self-reflective, and a little more oriented toward being a call to social action. Again, in the proclamation’s words, Lincoln called upon Americans “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience,” to commend to God’s tender care all those who were suffering in one way or another due to the ravages of war, “our lamentable civil strife.”
As tempted as I am to offer my own thoughts on what might be some 2013 examples of America’s “national perverseness and disobedience,” let me simply remind us that Lincoln’s declaration was two-pronged. It called not only for thanksgiving for blessings received, but also corrective action for our national failures and shortcomings. Certainly we all have many blessings for which we are grateful. To varying degrees, we all have so very, very much. We have roofs over our heads, more food than we could ever eat and more clothes than we could ever reasonably wear. We are blessed with jobs, or retirement security; and most importantly we are blessed with family and friends who love us and sustain is in times of sadness as well as joy. And so while we gather her on this day to give thanks to God for these blessings, the challenge of Lincoln – and more importantly, the challenge of the Gospel – is for us not to stand idly by when we have so very much and when so many millions – so many hundreds of millions – have so very little.
In his Apostolic Exhortation published earlier this week, Pope Francis speaks about the Joy of Evangelization (Evangelii Gaudium). I suspect you’ve read or heard the news coverage of this very important document. Some have called it a “tour de force,” perhaps representing a sea change for the Church. In a long section devoted entirely to what Francis calls “The Inclusion of the Poor in Society,” he states that those of us who have so much should not only be concerned with the most basic needs of those living in poverty. He challenges us to go further. Francis writes:
“Yet we desire even more than this; our dream soars higher. We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a ‘dignified sustenance’ for all people, but also their ‘general temporal welfare and prosperity.’ This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.”
To some, those words no doubt, are challenging. Regardless of where one stands on the issues that the Pope addresses – regardless of where one stands politically or economically or socially – if reading or hearing his words is challenging, the Pope has done his job. As we gather around this Eucharistic Table of thanksgiving this morning, let us do our best to follow in the footsteps of the one man – the outsider, the Samaritan – who recognized that his healing was not of his own making, but that his healing – like all things was a gift from God, giving thanks where thanks is always due.