When the Roman emperor Hadrian built his villa in Tivoli, he spared no expense. Over 250 acres, he spread out a lavish complex of 30 buildings. He adorned his imperial palace with the very best art. Among the most noted mosaics that decorated his villa was the mosaic called the Unswept Floor. It was a brilliantly executed trompe l’oeil. Its deceptively three-dimensional style depicted crab claws, grape pits, snail shells and other litter fallen onto the floor after a sumptuous banquet. It was a statement of wealth and plenty.
In one sense, Thanksgiving is our secular celebration of wealth and plenty. Each year, at Thanksgiving, many families set sumptuous tables to feast and enjoy. And, there are always leftovers. The extravagance and plenty are part of the day. The lavish meal has become a symbol of the greatness of a nation that traces its roots to the first settlers who overcame hardship and adversity and survived.
Coming in the fall, Thanksgiving is truly a harvest festival when we reap the natural bounty of the land and the fruits of our labor. From a sparsely inhabited land, we have carved out a country that is now home to over 316,128,839 people. Cars. Beautiful houses. Universities. Research Centers. Hospitals. Welfare Programs. Life-saving machines and medicines. We recognize that our country, birthed in hardship, has grown and prospered.
However, for people of faith, Thanksgiving is not just a secular celebration. It is much more than enjoying the work of our hands. Enlightened by faith, we see, guiding us, the same hand of God who watched over the Pilgrims landing on the shores of Massachusetts in 1620. Like those who gathered for the first Thanksgiving meal, we give thanks to God for the gift of life and the ability not simply to survive, but to thrive. We know that health and wealth, family and friends, all that we value so dearly, come from God.
Seated with family and friends to feast on God’s goodness to us, we take a rest from our labors, while, at the same time, acknowledging that our work to build a great nation is not yet complete. There are 45.3 million people living in poverty. Almost 20 percent of all children are poor. About 1.56 million people are homeless and need shelter. Clearly, not everyone is benefiting from the greatness of our land.
As Pope Francis has said, “A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being” (Pope Francis, Address to the Food and Agricultural Organization, June 20, 2013). “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs.” (St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in Lazaro 2, 5).
For all of us who are humbled by God’s favor and strengthened by fellowship with others, Thanks giving Day is the moment to recommit ourselves to work even harder that the
gifts given to us be set for all to enjoy at the banquet of life. Thanksgiving is less about our productivity and more about God’s providence for all.