When I was a small child, my mother would walk my siblings and me down to early Mass at the parish on Thanksgiving Day. In those early years, the daily Mass had the usual crowd. Over the years, that number grew, the Mass schedule changed, and eventually, the Mass had all the elements of a Sunday Mass. That steady growth of participation in Mass on Thanksgiving day fascinates me as the Church never declared the day one of obligation. Instead, people have instinctively and steadily drawn their own connection between the heart of this holiday and the gift of the Eucharist – itself a “thanksgiving.”
I suppose most of us say “thank you” dozens of times a day. Perhaps many of those instances are more about etiquette than any strong emotion or deep virtue. Thanksgiving is not so much about the perfunctory “thank yous.” It is rather about living gratitude. It is about a perspective and way of living in this challenging world. The world of psychology praises the positive physical and emotional effects of gratitude which bring us out of ourselves and enrich our daily experience. The scriptures and the spiritual life counsel gratitude as a virtue. In this regard, gratitude is a choice for the character of our stance towards God and towards neighbor. Of course, the scriptures call upon us to begin with gratitude to Almighty God.
This beautiful holiday is a chance to be renewed in gratitude. Every day, there are challenges that can leave us discouraged or overwhelmed. Gratitude is medicine for what ails us and nourishment for healthy living. Beginning with our awareness of the free gift of God’s love and mercy, we know the value of the time and calling given to each of us. No matter the challenges of the day, we inhabit a world of grace and beauty. And that grace is not just around us but runs through us as men and women made in the image and likeness of the God Who is Love.
Our gratitude towards Divine Providence also makes us conscious of the gift of the people around us who enrich us by companionship and care. Even when we are doing the helping, grateful hearts understand that such charity fills our hearts with purpose, meaning and joy.
It is no accident that so many people are drawn to Mass on Thanksgiving day even if the Mass is not obligated. There is no better moment or place to receive and celebrate the virtue of gratitude than at the celebration of the Eucharist. In this gift of the Lord, we touch the mystery of his loving sacrifice. We hear his voice in the Word of God and taste his “manna” from heaven. We return again and again to thank him and know the truth that “this thanksgiving is itself his gift.”
As a student priest, I lived for two years in Italy. It was a wonderful experience for which I am very grateful. I will admit, though, that Thanksgiving day was an emotional day for me in both of those years. Thanksgiving is a truly and uniquely American phenomenon. In Rome, life went on as usual and students from Italy or other countries would inquire about this strange tradition of feasting on turkey. I always tried to explain that it was not about the turkey. Italy was beautiful, but on Thanksgiving I longed for home, for family, for friends. Being away those two years gave me a deep appreciation of this holiday.
I hope that you will be with loved ones this Thanksgiving. I hope that you will express your gratitude to God and to the people that fill and enrich your life. I hope that all of us will embrace the virtue of gratitude and make it the foundation for healthy emotional, physical and spiritual living.