An American Thanksgiving in a Roman College
November 27, 2014
On Thanksgiving day, November 27, 2014, Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, O.P., gave the following homily at the Pontifical North American College. The readings for the Mass were taken from Sirach 50: 22-24 and Luke 17: 11-19. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ. It makes perfect sense that Thanksgiving Day should be marked with a proper liturgical celebration by the Catholic Church in the United States. For, despite its essentially civil character, it has always possessed a significant religious dimension that even the acid of secular modernity has been unable to eradicate. The liturgy invites us to see this day through the eyes of faith. Sparing you the details of the long and interesting history that clearly reflects the religious character of Thanksgiving Day, if we come directly to the presidential proclamation that in 1863 officially established it as a national holiday, we hear Abraham Lincoln, still “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,” recounting the many blessings that the nation has enjoyed and then declaring: “No human counsel hath devised nor any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” This was not the first Thanksgiving holiday, of course. Days of thanksgiving had been interwoven with days of fast and “humiliation” stretching back all the way to the 1620s among the English colonists in the northeast and earlier to the 1590s among the Spanish colonists in the southwest. The religious element in these celebrations was always clear, so much so that, when in 1808 Thomas Jefferson declined to proclaim a day of thanksgiving, fasting and prayer, his explanation for not doing so makes the point explicitly: “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises…. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government…. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting and prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises, which the Constitution has directly precluded them from…the civil powers alone [that] have been given to the President of the United States…[who has] no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.” For Jefferson, who had a keen sense for these things, there was no doubt about the religious meaning of Thanksgiving Day. Although among the most eloquent and moving of the genre, Lincoln’s words nonetheless express religious themes that have been commonplace in presidential Thanksgiving Day proclamations over the years, at least until very recently. Viewing this day through the eyes of faith, these proclamations express two themes that are striking: the thanks we owe to God for his personal providence in our regard, and the assurance of divine mercy when we repent of our sins. Lincoln’s proclamation in the first place encourages us to see all the blessings of our lives as “the gracious gifts of the Most High God.” Civil war notwithstanding, Lincoln attributes to God that peace with other nations has been preserved, that order has been maintained, that the laws have been respected and obeyed, that farming and industry have not been interrupted, that the population of the nation has increased, and that “the country…is permitted to expect continuance of years with a large increase of freedom.” Each of us will have a list of blessings that partly coincide and partly diverge from Lincoln’s, but we can take to heart his caution not to “forget the source from which they come”—some bounties indeed “of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.” In the perspective of faith, the various good things that we have received or that have happened to us are not simply part of the natural order of things but are expressions of the personal interest and providential care that God has for each one of us. Although leprosy is a terrible and rare affliction, and to have been cured of leprosy was surely a miraculous and rare benefit, the Gospel encourages us to acknowledge that our situation is nonetheless comparable to that of the ten lepers, only one of whom returned to give thanks for something which the other nine seem to have taken for granted. Thanksgiving Day reminds us not simply that we must be thankful for particular blessings (a moral lesson), but more importantly that everything is a gift of God (an ontological truth): our lives, our families, our well-being, our good qualities, our vocations, above all our communion with the Blessed Trinity in grace, and sometimes even our trials. In the second place, Lincoln does not hesitate to remind us of sin and divine mercy. This theme is not unique to him. Notwithstanding the pervasive deism of his times, a robust Christian faith peeks through James Madison’s 1814 proclamation of a day of public humiliation, fasting and prayer on which “all may have an opportunity of voluntarily offering at the same time in their respective religious assemblies their humble adoration to the Great Sovereign of the Universe, of confessing their sins and transgressions, and of strengthening their vows of repentance and amendment.” Madison did this during the War of 1812. For his part, Lincoln writes in a time of terrible crisis as well, and he explicitly links civil strife with sin when he recommends to the American people “that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to [God] for…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.” This conjunction of thanksgiving for God’s gracious gifts with repentance for sin and the remembrance of divine mercy is a striking and rarely sounded note in Thanksgiving Day celebrations. There is a Christian realism at work here, echoed in Sirach’s blessing where a prayer for gladness of heart and peace is followed by the words: “May he entrust to us his mercy and may he deliver us in our days.” We cannot expect Madison or Lincoln to explain this implicit conjunction of thanksgiving and repentance, but faith rushes in to make all things clear. What is this Eucharistic sacrifice if not the celebration of the victorious passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ that heals the wounds of the sin that torments us and our world—a victory for which we daily offer up hymns of praise and thanksgiving? The Eucharistic sacrifice enacts this conjunction of thanksgiving and repentance, of blessing and mercy. Not for nothing are we moved by the words of past presidents on Thanksgiving Day, and, more importantly, ready and willing to mark the day with a proper liturgical celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. ***** For us, who are sojourning in a foreign land, the celebration of the one national holiday that doesn’t really travel well prompts bitterweet feelings of nostalgia and homesickness. But surrounded by friends we do our best to do it justice. Fortified by this Eucharistic feast, we anticipate the Thanksgiving Day banquet to follow as well as the heavenly banquet to come, recalling the words of the whispered prayer at the purification of the sacred vessels after Holy Communion: “What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity.” Amen.