When we think of Thanksgiving in this country, we naturally think of the holiday when we gather with loved ones and enjoy turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and all of the fixin’s. There is usually an overarching theme of being thankful for the many things that we enjoy in life. Many will post clever memes and photos reminding the world what the holiday is all about (most of which are misquoted and historically inaccurate). Also, in our political society, people like to bring in issues such as immigration into those memes and posts. Yet the Church has been celebrating Thanksgiving since the time of Christ. In fact, it was Christ himself who taught us this tradition.
Thanksgiving in the United States
The group of 100 or so passengers who boarded the Mayflower and left Plymouth, England in 1620 were met 66 days later in “The New World” by disease and unfortunate circumstances that killed half of them over their first winter. Those who survived met two Native Americans later that spring (the name Squanto should ring a bell). Squanto spoke English and helped the pilgrims learn necessary survival skills such as planting and fishing. He also helped them form a peaceful alliance with the neighboring tribe, the Wampanoag tribe. And, as you are well aware, due to an abundant harvest that fall, the pilgrims and local tribes held a celebratory festival for three days. This momentous occasion has been remembered and celebrated throughout our nation’s history.
Prior to 1863 in the United States, Thanksgiving was celebrated in individual colonies and states and would often last for a few days. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a National Holiday in November. It is a beautiful tradition; one which calls to mind not only abundant blessings, but the invaluable importance of peaceful unity and loving thy neighbor. It calls to mind sharing our gifts with others.
As Catholics, however, a thanksgiving meal can be traced back way before the Pilgrims and Native Americans in Plymouth in the year 1621 to about 1600 years prior. What is at the center of our faith? What is the source and summit of the Christian life? THE EUCHARIST (which literally means “thanksgiving”). The celebration of the Eucharist is the foretaste of the Heavenly banquet. It is a common meal, shared by Christians since Christ instituted it on Holy Thursday. It is a meal of thanksgiving. This thanksgiving meal has been celebrated in the homes of the early Christians, on battlefields, and in Churches and missions throughout the world.
When Christ instituted the Eucharist and founded His Church upon Peter and the Apostles, the first thing he did during the meal was “give thanks” (Matthew 26:27; Luke 22:17) and ask that we do it in His memory.
What do we give thanks for? The Eucharist calls to mind the gift Christ gave us in His Church and His priesthood. Through the priest, that very meal is RE-presented (made present again) each and every day on altars all over the world. It calls to mind Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, his life, death, and resurrection. It calls to mind that our God, the God who created all things out of nothing loved us so much that he humbled himself to become like us and take our sins upon himself. He laid down His life so that we may have eternal life. That’s quite a lot to be thankful for!
The beautiful tradition of Thanksgiving as a holiday is extra-meaningful for us as Catholics. Let us call to mind the source and summit of our faith, as well as the mission of our faith. Let us give thanks for what the Lord has blessed us with—from temporal things like food and health to spiritual gifts like the priesthood, the Sacraments, the Church, and salvation.
In thanksgiving for the many men and women who have said YES to Christ’s call to serve Him and his Church. Who have recognized their God-given gifts and said yes to sharing those gifts with others to build up the Church and the good of all. May God continue to bless us with a bountiful harvest for the vineyard of the Lord.
Have a wonderful and blessed Thanksgiving!