I would have thought that, over the course of the lifetime of this weekly column (38 years-plus and still counting), I had written a fair amount of annual essays on the secular holiday of Thanksgiving, celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday of November, and in Canada, where the harvest is earlier, on the second Monday of October.
But a search of the archives on my Web site (www.richardmcbrien.com) disclosed that I had devoted only eight columns to the Thanksgiving holiday, and seven of those in the 1990s, between 1993 and 1999.
After the string of consecutive columns in that decade, it became much more difficult to think of anything original to say about Thanksgiving. However, I did return to the subject two years ago, then dropped it again last year.
This year, at the risk of seeming simply to stitch together fragments of old columns, I propose to highlight some of the lines and paragraphs that I regard, however mistakenly, as having some abiding spiritual value.
For obvious theological reasons, a few key excerpts underscore the connection between Thanksgiving — particularly the holiday meal — and the Eucharist.
“It is more than fitting that we should observe the holiday with a festive meal which does more than nourish us physically. It binds us more closely together as families and as friends. Much as the Eucharist is intended to do within the family of Christ” (1995).
“If our Thanksgiving dinner together this year proves once again to be a genuinely rewarding and unifying family celebration, we might remind ourselves that this is what the Eucharist is supposed to be like as well.
“In a sense, every Sunday is supposed to be Thanksgiving, because every Sunday is a time for the gathering of the family around the dinner table to give thanks for all that God has done and continues to do for us” (1993).
“In our ordinary human experience, gratitude is the sort of virtue we usually take for granted in ourselves and in other people. We only seem to notice when it’s missing.
“It’s not so much that those who do a service or give a gift need to be thanked for it, as it is that those who receive a service or a gift need to give thanks — for their own sakes, not the gift-giver’s, and for the integrity of their own moral character.
“The instinct of parents, therefore, is properly directed when it seeks to instill in very young children the habit of saying, ‘Thank you.’ One might even suggest that it’s a matter of teaching Eucharist from the earliest stages of life” (1994).
The 1996 column pointed out the extremes to which some religions go in suppressing freedom, even violently. The Taliban, then ruling in Afghanistan, was a prime example.
“This Thanksgiving we should gratefully remember our Founding Fathers not only for guaranteeing freedom of religion, but also for insuring freedom from religion.”
“Thanksgiving Day is surely a time for giving thanks to God for all that we have — the gift of life, the blessings of a loving family, the security of food, clothing and a place to live — but it is just as surely a time for thinking of, and resolving to act on behalf of, those who lack those same gifts and blessings.
“To do so is to make of this holiday one that is meaningful not only for Christians and other religious people, but for all those who value human dignity and recognize that we are all part of one human family” (1997).
“Because Thanksgiving and Christmas are, in a particular way, family holidays (unlike the Fourth of July or even Easter), it is on such occasions that we feel most keenly the absence of loved ones, whether through death or distance.
“We recall the happy times when all were together….The empty chairs or closed-in spaces serve now as silent monuments to their memories and to the deep love that we had for them, and they for us” (1998).
The 1999 column was a hymn of gratitude for the Second Vatican Council. It ended in this way: “John Paul II insisted in his apostolic letter Tertio millennio adveniente that ‘the best preparation for the new millennium’ is ‘a renewed commitment to apply, as faithfully as possible, the teachings of Vatican II to the life of every individual and of the whole church.’
“As for the council itself, Deo gratias.”
“We give thanks this Thanksgiving not only for the spiritual and physical blessings we have received, but also for the grace and the courage to reform those church structures which in any way inhibit and diminish those blessings” (2002).
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.