Thanksgiving Day is a long honored tradition in our American History. The first national celebration of an annual day of public Thanksgiving to God was decreed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, one hundred and fifty years ago this very month. We were in the midst of our grievous War between the States; Lincoln had just issued his Emancipation Proclamation a few months earlier. He intended this celebration as a day for Americans to give succor to their fellow citizens who suffered bereavement and were in desperate circumstances following the loss of loved ones in that fratricidal war.
Lincoln was not the first President to call for a public day of thanksgiving to God. George Washington asked all U.S. citizens to mark a day of thanks for the successful completion of our newly established nation’s War of Independence and the ratification of our Constitution. Other presidents after Washington likewise called for public days of thanks to God. But Abraham Lincoln made this a holiday to be celebrated each year on the fourth Thursday of November by all the people.
And before there was a president of the United States, almost 400 years ago in 1621, the Massachusetts Plymouth Colony pilgrims celebrated one of the first Thanksgiving feasts in the new world. They offered hospitality to the Native Americans who had befriended them and taught them how to cope with the first year of hardship, sickness and death on the Massachusetts Bay. That singular feast has become the popular symbol of today’s observance: as one nation under God, indivisible, we express our gratitude to our Maker for his faithful and provident care as we acknowledge our responsibility to provide for our brothers and sisters, our neighbors in need.
In Sacred Scripture we find constant expressions of gratitude to God. Gratitude to God is a fundamental response of every believer to our Creator for the blessings in our lives. We have received everything from his hand and we return to him our thanks.
Such expressions of think reach their peak in the New Testament. Jesus gave ecstatic thanks, as described by St. Luke: I thank you, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because what you have hidden from the learned and the clever you have revealed to the merest children. Jesus also thanked his Father for raising Lazarus from the dead: Father I thank you for having heard me. I know you always hear me. And at the Last Supper, giving his Body and Blood to his chosen Apostles to eat and drink at their Passover Meal, Jesus gave thanks over the bread and wine–hence our name Eucharist, or thanks, for the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood. His gift to us of his divine life in the Sacrament of the Altar is the solemn and supreme thanksgiving we could express to God.
With Jesus providing such a teaching, such an example of thanksgiving it only remains for us to examine our response to god. On this day of national thanksgiving, is the life I live one of gratitude to God? Could I say how I live a life of thanks to God? What I see in the life of Jesus is a faithful Jew, the incarnate Son of God, living his entire life as thanksgiving. In the midst of exhausting labors and terrible conflicts–even in times of profound grief, betrayals and excruciating torture; even in death itself–we see Jesus always trusting in his Father’s will. We see him ever thankful for the presence of God sustaining him in all he was asked to do. The life of Jesus is continual Eucharist. And so must be mine.