As we enter the month of November we prepare to celebrate the civic holiday we call Thanksgiving. I love this annual feast but I find myself wondering whether a holiday by this name is likely to continue in an ever more secularized nation. If these trends toward greater secularization continue can Thanksgiving remain a feast that leads us to pause and reflect, a day rich in meaning? Or will Thanksgiving become like many of our civil holidays, simply a part of a longer weekend in which many can kick back at home or travel or shop until they drop?
To give thanks is a concept we are taught from our childhood. We are taught to say thanks as a necessary social grace. But thanksgiving in many instances is more profound and our response is rightly more heartfelt. We feel moved to give thanks for actions or gifts of great generosity that go well beyond social obligations and which we might never be able to repay. Such a case might be when you receive the Christmas gift you hardly dared to dream of or when a person you don’t even know risks his life to save your own. When we have experienced such an act of unmerited generosity it is difficult even to find the words to express our gratitude although “thank you” may be all we can say.
This brings me back to our annual feast that has been dedicated to thanksgiving. We might well ask what it is for which we are giving thanks and to whom? The first Thanksgiving proclamations made the answer to these questions clear. In the year 1789 when our nation had just been born, our first President, George Washington, under the direction of the newly formed Congress, issued this proclamation which I will quote in part:
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.’
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.”
The practice President Washington began has continued to this day. His thanksgiving was profound and the object of that thanks was clear. Our nation will continue to be great as long as we know to whom we owe our Thanksgiving.
Have a great and meaningful Feast!
Most Rev. Mark J. Seitz