November 28, 2013
No one knows the exact date that the Pilgrims at Plymouth hosted 90 Native Americans and their chief, Massasoit, to celebrate an abundant harvest. History tells us that, in the autumn of 1621, their celebration lasted for three days. They feasted on fowl, brewed beer and enjoyed games. It was time to be together and enjoy the gift of the land. Such feasts were not unknown among the small farming communities back home in Europe. A good harvest was ample reason to rejoice.
Leaving behind the religious persecution in England, they had gone first to Holland; then, they came to the New World. At the end of their first year, the Pilgrims spontaneously gathered and reveled in the food, family, friendship and freedom they had found. The Pilgrims would not have thought of making such a celebration an annual event. Their approach to life was deeply religious and soberly realistic. God had blessed them their first year. They would not presume that God would bless them in the same way again.
Three years after that first harvest festival in Plymouth, William Bradford, the Governor of the Colony of Massachusetts, established a day of thanksgiving to God as an official holiday. He wrote, “Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest…and has spared us from the pestilence and granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience, …I do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims do gather at ye meeting house on … Thursday, November ye 29th, there… to render Thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all his blessings.” Thus, Thanksgiving Day was born.
From President Lincoln’s declaration of Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday to President Roosevelt’s fixing the date under federal law in 1941, Americans have kept this day as a sacred tradition. Many of us gather around the family table. Others less fortunate, the homeless and those struggling to make a living, gather at a table of food and fellowship in many of our churches and other charitable institutions.
Seated at table, some can be joy-filled as they count the many blessings of the past year. Others remember in sorrow the sufferings, the trials and the stress. A job loss, a relationship or marriage gone bad, a health problem, the death of a loved one. With gratitude for the good and acceptance of the difficult, we all join together in one great national act of thanksgiving to God. Giving thanks makes all of us turn our eyes to the good that God is actually doing for us, wherever we are in life at this moment.
When the Pilgrims sat at table to enjoy the blessings of their bountiful harvest, they were not wealthy. They were not free from disappointment and hardship. They had dug seven times more graves than homes they had built. Yet, they turned to God with thanksgiving.
When Lincoln proclaimed a day of national thanks, the battlefields were strewn with the dead of North and South. The land was devastated and grief was great. Yet, the president called for gratitude.
Yes, it is easy to raise a prayer of thanks when things go well. But, it is imperative to offer thanks when things go badly. “The unthankful heart... discovers no mercies; but let the thankful heart sweep through the day and, as the magnet finds the iron, so it will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings!” (Henry Ward Beecher)
Thanksgiving makes us less self-centered and more God-centered. It turns grief into gratitude, despair into hope and confusion into clarity. It turns a stranger into a brother and a gathering into a feast. It opens our eyes to see beyond the present moment to a tomorrow that God has yet in store for us. It makes us look beyond a table laden with earth’s rich harvest to the table set with heaven’s abundance in a home that is meant for all. Thanksgiving Day is but the prelude to the family feast that will never end.
On Thanksgiving Day, as we gather at the altar to enter into the greatest act of thanksgiving, the Eucharist, I hold in my prayer all of you, the faithful of our diocese, your families and your loved ones, especially the sick and the suffering. May the Lord increase his joy within each of you and draw you closer to Himself.
+Arthur J. Serratelli