Thanksgiving should be more than a secular holiday

Archbishop Robert J. CarlsonThanksgiving Day, celebrated earlier this week, is a harvest festival celebrated primarily in the United States and Canada. Traditionally, it is a time to give thanks for the harvest and express gratitude in general. While it may have been religious in origin, Thanksgiving is now primarily identified as a secular holiday (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope that you have been enjoying this very special time of year — surrounded by your family and friends! Holidays can be hard times for people who are in poor health, homeless or who are experiencing emotional or financial difficulties. Let’s be sure to pray for those who are less fortunate than we are, and let’s help them every way we can — especially as we prepare for the Advent and Christmas seasons.

The encyclopedia tells us that Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, not a religious holy day. That’s technically true, but for those of us who are believers, it is impossible to “express gratitude in general.” Our thanks go to the God who created us and who sustains us by His grace. We Christians believe that this God is a person who knows us individually and who cares about each one of us. When we give thanks to Him, it is a very intimate and personal thing.

We Catholics celebrate the holy Eucharist (whose name comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving) every day, but on this day, Thanksgiving, we give special thanks to God for all His abundant blessings. That includes the gift of life itself, our parents and families, the love that we share with spouses and children, our friends, our freedom as Americans, our vocations as disciples of Jesus Christ, our material possessions, our intellectual gifts and talents, and much, much more.

Gratitude is a powerful virtue. It opens our hearts to the healing power of God’s grace. It helps us look beyond our own selfish wants and fears to the gifts we receive from others and to the opportunities we have to share with others and to return thanks to God for all that He has generously given to us.

Last year in my Thanksgiving article here in the St. Louis Review, I posed the unusual question, “If God wrote you a letter on Thanksgiving Day, what would it say?” I acknowledged that the question makes us uncomfortable. We’re supposed to say thank you to God, not the other way around. But our God is full of surprises. His ways are not our ways. So suppose He wrote you a letter on Thanksgiving Day. What might it say?

Here’s what I suggested a year ago:

Thank you for being my daughter (or son). Thank you for loving others and for trying to be good. I know it isn’t easy, but I want you to be truly happy. When you fail, say you’re sorry and resolve to sin no more. Love others as I love you. Don’t be selfish or resentful. Say thank you — to the people you love, to the people you work with, to your neighbors and to me. I love you. I appreciate you. I’m grateful for all that you try to do to be a good and generous steward of my gifts. Happy Thanksgiving!

If God can thank us, and forgive us, in spite of our selfishness and sin, shouldn’t we be able to do the same? Shouldn’t we have the faith and the courage to look beyond our own needs and wants and fears to the gifts we have received from God and from so many others.

When you go to Mass this weekend, say a special word of thanks to God for all His blessings. Say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the people in your life who have shared their gifts with you. Say a prayer of contrition for your sins, and ask for the grace to forgive those who have harmed you in any way.

Thanksgiving is not just a secular holiday. It is a moment of grace for all of us who have been blessed by God to say thank you to Him and to everyone He has given us (family, friends, co-workers, strangers and even enemies). Our prayers of thanksgiving have the power to bring us hope, healing and great joy. May we thank God always for His goodness to us!