From the vault, my Thanksgiving Day homily from 2008:
A priest I know likes to say that Thanksgiving is one of his favorite holidays, and not just because of the food.
The church is always filled, he says, and the great thing is that people come to Mass today not because they have to…but because they want to.
He makes a beautiful point. There are no rules saying any of us has to be here this morning. I’m sure a lot of people have other things to do — trips to make, turkeys to stuff, tables to set. Somewhere, there’s a football game waiting to be watched. In the middle of all that, going to Mass isn’t required. This isn’t a day of obligation.
Rather, it is a day of opportunity.
It’s an opportunity to think back on what we have been given…and to give something in return: thanks. Actually, “thanks” is too small a word. We are here to give gratitude. They should call this day “Gratitude-giving.”
We are here to honor, with grateful hearts, what God has done for us.
Very often, in our prayer lives, we spend so much time on our knees, asking for things. Pleading. “God, help me pass this test.” “Keep me from throttling my teenager.” “Help me find a job.” “Protect my son in Afghanistan.”
The scripture tells us to ask and we shall receive, and to knock and it will be opened. So we ask, and we knock.
But what happens then?
In Luke’s gospel today, 10 people are cured by Jesus of leprosy. Only one comes back to say thank you. Tellingly, the person who comes back is a Samaritan. He isn’t Jewish. But neither was St. Luke. Luke is the only one of the evangelists who was not a Jew. And his gospel was written for those, like himself, who were the outsiders, the foreigners. Christ’s message, Luke tells us, is meant for everyone.
But in the gospel story, not everyone comes back.
Only that one, a Samaritan, returns to give glory to God. We don’t know what happened to the other nine. Maybe they had turkeys to stuff or football games to watch.
Implicit in this episode is the idea that something is missing. Giving thanks is a vital and necessary part of our relationship with God.
All the lepers were cured. But only one, the one who gave thanks, was saved.
And that is because thankfulness, we discover, is a measure of faith. A measure of our dependence on God, and of our own humility.
But sometimes thankfulness can be hard to express.
Most of us know someone who is having a difficult time this Thanksgiving. The woman who is spending her first holiday as a widow. The father who lost his job and is worried about where he will find Christmas gifts for his children. Those friends and neighbors who are hurting or alone.
Where are the blessings for these and others who are feeling, in a particular way, burdened, afflicted, cursed?
Those blessings are closer than we may think. Every breath is a blessing. Every moment. “Bless the God of all,” Sirach exclaims, “who has done wondrous things on earth.” Incredibly, we are part of that wonder, part of God’s continuing creation in the world. And what a blessing to be able to say that!
The German mystic and philosopher, Meister Eckhert, once wrote: “If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that will suffice.”
That is why we are here: to pray those words, and to make them matter.
So taking a cue from Meister Eckhert, let’s make this something more than a holiday, more than an excuse to have a second slice of pie and take a long nap in front of the television.
Make this very day a kind of prayer. Beginning here, and now.
As the day unfolds, carry that prayer with you. Live it. Give it. This is, after all, a day for giving — giving thanks. It doesn’t have to end when you say grace over the turkey. In fact, it doesn’t have to end tonight — God’s gifts certainly won’t. Every beat of your heart affirms an unmistakable mystery: God has given you life. Extravagant, wonderful, painful, tumultuous, challenging life.
Let’s strive to remind ourselves of God’s blessings, wherever we find them, however they come to us. And to give thanks for them, every day, in every moment.
I want to conclude with a little tradition from my wife’s family. Every Thanksgiving, her dad asks one of the kids at the table to read aloud George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation from 1789.
It includes this beautiful sentence:
“Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH 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 author’s magnificent work – truly the greatest story every composed – is continuing. He has made us a part of it. And that is reason enough for us to be here, on this day of opportunity, not obligation, to tell Him how humbled, and happy, and grateful we are.