In 1621 William Bradford’s pilgrims at Plymouth together with native Americans celebrated the first of what we have come to know as Thanksgiving. What is much less known is how much the pilgrims had suffered to that point. The trip on the Mayflower was miserable due to delays; storms forced most passengers to stay in the hull for much of the trip; and their food ran low. Once in Massachusetts, things remained difficult. Fifty of the original 102 travelers died in the first winter. Disease and other health problems due to malnutrition were common.[i] Nevertheless, in a more bountiful moment, they remembered to give thanks to God.[ii]
Their example provides us an invaluable lesson.
Giving thanks is one of the most spiritually fruitful things we can do. It is a recognition and a reminder that there is more good than bad in our lives. It is an act of faith in the existence of a good and provident God. It is an antidote to a sense of entitlement, which fails to recognize the generosity of others. It causes satisfaction since it focuses us on our fulfilled needs and desires. It orders our relationship with God since he is due our gratitude.
The word ‘Eucharist’ means thanksgiving. Therefore, every Mass is the ultimate thanksgiving feast. The offertory is where we return to God all the gifts he has given us – symbolized in the bread and wine – so that he can in turn convert it to his body and blood and give us his very self. God is never outdone in generosity. How can we not give thanks?
The Preface of the second Eucharist Prayer states, ‘It is truly right and just, our duty and salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Father most holy, through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ.’ ‘Always and everywhere’ are important qualifiers. Like the pilgrims, we must be willing to thank God in good times and in bad.
Giving thanks in difficult moments requires much more faith than when we prosper. We affirm God’s providence precisely when it seems least present. We affirm with St. Paul that ‘all things work for good for those who love God’ [Rm 8:28]; and ‘all things’ include the year 2020.
Perhaps the height of faith is that of the martyr. He, humanly speaking, has no more grounds for hope and yet can still cry with Job, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!’ [Job 1:21].
While our current situation is not one of martyrdom, it is a moment in which many are suffering from illness, fear, anger, and uncertainty. The challenges people face are real.
That is why it is all the more important to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. You may have to take certain precautions, but do not cancel our nationally established tradition of thanking God. It is in him and from him that we will find healing and blessings – from the pandemic, from national strife, and from whatever else ails us as a nation. It is from him that we will receive the graces necessary to carry our cross. It is in him that all of our life finds meaning.
Let us make this year’s Thanksgiving a more profoundly spiritual experience. As a family you could attend Mass, enumerate things for which you are grateful to God for in this past year [Yes, 2020!], and share a common prayer of Thanksgiving. Giving to those less fortunate is another wonderful way to give thanks to God.
So enjoy the football, food and family, but let us keep our gratitude to God front and center this Thanksgiving.
I wish you and your families a very blessed Thanksgiving.
Fr. John Bullock, LC
[i] cf. ‘Professing Faith: Pilgrims thanked God after years of suffering’ By REDLANDS DAILY FACTS November 25, 2015. https://www.redlandsdailyfacts.com/2015/11/25/professing-faith-pilgrims-thanked-god-after-years-of-suffering/ [ii] cf. ‘Professing Faith: Pilgrims thanked God after years of suffering’…