This has been a Thanksgiving like no other. A national holiday that we otherwise celebrate with abandon is being observed with utmost caution, restraint, devoid of large family gatherings, and perhaps, even alone. A pandemic Thanksgiving – it almost sounds like an oxymoron, but this is the world in which we find ourselves in 2020.
First, we must acknowledge the 261,000 lives that have been lost to COVID-19 and express our deepest sympathies to the grieving families. Each life that was lost was someone’s spouse, someone’s grandparent, someone’s father or mother, someone’s son or daughter, someone’s brother or sister. We must offer our prayers also for the many COVID-19 patients in hospitals, in intensive care units, in nursing homes, and for those families, whose Thanksgiving prayer includes and a prayer for the survival of a loved one. Let us pray for everyone who has died, those grieving their loved ones, and those battling for survival, healing, and recovery.
Yet, it is Thanksgiving. It is characteristic of Christian life that even amidst the most challenging situations, we do not fail to pause and give thanks to God. After all, no matter how bad it gets, our ultimate destiny is still a gift from God. As Paul says in today’s second reading, “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:8-9). Salvation is God’s gift, and we remain eternally thankful. We are not like the nine lepers of today’s gospel reading (Lk 17:11-19), who failed to return to give thanks to God. Rather, we wish to be like the one healed leper, “a foreigner” (Lk 17:18), who taught the world the meaning of gratitude. So, we offer thanks.
“Dear God, for life, for health, for family, for friends, for food and drink, for love and goodness, for kindness and compassion, for faith and hope, and for your undying presence in our lives, we give you thanks. We are also grateful, dear God, for the those on the frontlines, the doctors, nurses, and all health-care workers who dedicated themselves to save lives; for the teachers and educators who kept our schools open; for disinfectors and cleaners, grocery-shelf stockers and workers; for researchers and scientists finding a cure for the coronavirus. We are also grateful for every person who has offered hope, help, and goodness to another person in need. For all these things and more, dear God, we are thankful.”
Besides the Pandemic, there is another reality that makes Thanksgiving 2020 unprecedented. We are celebrating this Thanksgiving as a bitterly divided nation. Racial, social, and political upheavals have left us bruised and exasperated. But within the history of our nation, we find traditions that remind us that hate can be overcome, that divisions can be conquered, that differences can be celebrated. Thanksgiving is the first and the oldest of these traditions.
Historically, the first Thanksgiving in October 1621 was a celebration of the Pilgrim’s first harvest in the New World. 90 Native Americans and 53 pilgrims participated in the celebration. Simultaneously, it also became a celebration of the meeting of two different cultures, two different ways of existence, two differing religious traditions, two different peoples.
In the story of the healing of the leper, it is no accident that Luke twice makes reference to the fact that the man who returned to give thanks to God was a Samaritan, “a foreigner” (Lk 17:18). This story, like the story of that first Thanksgiving is not merely a story of gratitude, but also a story, where people of two historically estranged cultures overcame their hatred and prejudices and made room for a miracle. An ostracized Samaritan leper reached out to Jesus, a Jew and the Son of God. The same man returned, to then, give thanks to God. In return, Jesus immortalized this foreigner as a hero. On the one hand, this miracle was the healing of the man from leprosy. On the other hand, the miracle was also the ability of human beings to overcome hate and prejudice, to come together for a cause, and even to celebrate differences.
On this Thanksgiving, then, it remains our obligation to not only give thanks, but like the ‘Samaritan leper’ and ‘the Divine Jew’ of biblical times, cooperate to overcome hate and heal divisions. I believe that America – a nation that that ended slavery, a nation that intervened globally to end the tyranny of fascist Nazism, a nation that welcomed foreigners from every corner of the world and yet weaved them into a single fabric, a nation that overcame the horrendous terrorist attack on Sept 11, 2001 – can once again come together to heal the racial, social and political rifts that divide her. Let us ensure that we can be that nation which ensures life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. It is within our national character to accomplish this task.
As Catholic Americans we celebrate the Eucharist. Eucharist means ‘thanksgiving,’ and Catholic means ‘universal.’ This means, then, that we offer thanks as a diverse yet universal people that bears witness to God’s gift of salvation to all. May God accept our gratitude and may God hear our prayer for unity, peace, and goodwill.
I end my reflection with the words from today’s first reading at Mass today. In these words from Sirach 5:23-24, I wish you all a blessed and joy-filled Thanksgiving:
“May he grant you joy of heart and may peace abide among you;
May his goodness toward us endure… to deliver us in our days.”