Today’s readings: Isaiah 63:7-9 – Psalm 145 – Colossians 3:12-17 – John 16:20-22
I think, over the past year, that God has been teaching me to be grateful. Not that I wasn’t a grateful person before, but maybe more that I am re-learning how to be grateful. As a pastor, there are whole new sets of challenges, different from when I was an associate. But there are whole new sets of graces, too, also different from when I was an associate.
That got me thinking about what Thanksgiving really means as a feast. Sure, it’s easy for us to be grateful people when things are going along fine, and we’re not challenged, and we can easily see the blessings. But how grateful are we when things are difficult and our lives are turned inside-out? Can we be grateful anyway in all of that?
I think that’s what Jesus is telling us in our Gospel today. “You will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.” A holiday like Thanksgiving can be hard for those who are weeping and mourning. And if Father Pat just stands here and says, “count your blessings,” that would not be a homily worth hearing.
So what is the meaning of this Thanksgiving feast? Well, I think a lot of us know the story. We learned in school that the pilgrims gathered in autumn of 1621 after a year in the New World. It was a year of rich harvests, and they were thankful that they had survived. So their gathering was a feast of giving thanks to God for what he had done for them. They were thankful because they had survived.
But Peter Fleck, a Unitarian minister, suggested a few years ago that maybe that wasn’t it at all. Maybe what was really true was that they survived because they were thankful. Think about it, that year could not have been an easy one for them. They were in a new land, vastly different from what they had been used to. They had grown crops they weren’t used to and survived disease. After all of that harrowing experience, they were still grateful. Maybe that “attitude of gratitude” was why they survived.
Saint Paul had that notion, I think, in our second reading today. Writing to the Colossians, he is telling them how to survive as people of faith. He challenges them to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient and forgiving. He tells them to love one another and be peaceful people. And then he shows them were it all begins: “And be thankful.”
Notice how he says it. He wasn’t asking them to feel thankful. He told them to be thankful. Gratitude is a decision, not an emotion. Grateful people choose to look for the blessing in everyday life, even in hard times, and they thank God for that. Grateful people choose to look for God’s presence in the midst of darkness, and thank him for walking with them on the journey. They don’t wait to be grateful for winning the lottery or landing the big account at work or getting that promotion they were hoping for. Instead, they seize the opportunity to be thankful for being. They are thankful for having the presence of God on the journey.
As Catholics, we are a people who constantly choose to be grateful. Our Eucharist is the Thanksgiving feast par excellence. Every time we gather to celebrate Mass, we remember that God in his infinite mercy sent his only Son to be our Savior. He came into our world and walked among us, filling the earth with his most merciful presence. He journeyed among us, a man like us in all things but sin. His great love led him to bear the cross for our sake, dying the death we so richly deserved for our many sins. And then he did the greatest thing possible: he burst out of the grave, breaking the chains of death, and rose to new life. Because of this grace, we have the possibility of everlasting life with God, the life we were created for in the first place.
Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember this awesome mystery. Not only that, our Eucharist brings us to the hour of that grace, giving us once again a share in its blessing. As a Eucharistic people, we Catholics are a people of gratitude. That’s what defines us.
So how would a people defined by gratitude celebrate this Thanksgiving day? Certainly we have made the best possible start: gathering for the Eucharist to give thanks for the presence of God and the grace he pours out on us. Then we take that grace to our families’ own Thanksgiving feasts and beyond. As we gather around the table today, maybe we can stop to reflect on God’s magnificent presence in our lives – in good times and in bad. And then use that gratitude to make the world an awesome place – or at least your corner of it!
Gratitude is infectious – in a good way! When we make it a constant spiritual practice to reflect on how God has blessed us, when we take the time to thank someone for something little they did that made us smile, when we show our gratitude by reaching out in service to others, others can become grateful people too. A watching world looks at us Catholics to see if we really are who we say we are. When we live as grateful people, our Eucharist is authentic and our witness is exhilarating.
Like those pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, maybe our gratitude can become the source of our survival through the hard times and the source of our joy in the good times. May we never cease to sing the praise of God and to cry out in songs of thanks.