A Happy Thanksgiving to you all, and many thanks for beginning your holiday with Mass this morning. You are among the faithful who celebrate a genuine Thanksgiving as did America’s founding pilgrims. We must never forget that America was founded by religious pilgrims, motivated more to worship God freely than material prosperity. Prosperity followed, but worship came first. They, and Presidents Washington and Lincoln after them, established Thanksgiving as a day of worship and sacred gratitude to God. I’ve been told that America’s very first Thanksgiving meal was at St. Augustine in Florida, following a Mass offered in thanksgiving by Spanish colonists, fifty years before the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. The first act of thanksgiving on our soil was, therefore, the Catholic Mass, the same Mass that we are offering on this Thanksgiving Day.
A cardiac Event
Last week a friend of mine went through a “cardiac event,” which means her heart almost gave out. She is fairly young but saw her life failing her, and all that she held dear being taken from her. I was amazed to hear her cheerful and even thankful voice on the phone. “In this trauma, I thank God for all he has given me, and I know He has allowed my heart to falter at this time for a good reason.” She witnessed to me that a time of pain and confusion is the precise moment to give thankful praise to God, who never ceases to care for us.
Our two readings are from the 34th and last week of the Liturgical Year, and speak of the end times. The prophet Daniel is thrown into the Lion’s Den, and Jesus predicts the unimagined stress at the end of the world. In the first reading, Daniel, an exceptionally gifted youth who had enjoyed the king’s favor, is destroyed by envious people. The King, reluctantly, is forced by political necessity to execute him. One of the more gruesome means of capital punishment at the time was stripping a man naked and throwing him into a cage with several lions. Daniel refuses to express bitterness at this turn of fortune; he doesn’t miss a beat, but joyfully—even with gratitude—climbs into the cage. The next day, untouched by harm, he sings out to the king, “O King, live forever! God has sent his angel to close the lions’ mouths,” for he is the living God. Daniel’s unshakeable faith motivates his unshakable thanksgiving. So it will be at the end of the world. “You will see Jerusalem surrounded by armies,” Jesus tells us in the Gospel. Some “people will die of fright… but when these signs begin, stand erect and raise your heads, because your redemption is at hand.”
When things go very south for you, when your enemies attack and your friends reject you, when your money fails, when your health fails, when your mind fails, stand erect, raise your head, and know that your redemption is at hand. It is precisely in distress that we must thank God, if we are to survive the great distress. People of faith, in fact, grow stronger in times of distress if they consistently thank God. They are immune from discouragement.
Let us return to President Lincoln, who uttered the following words precisely at the time of greatest national distress, in the midst of our Civil War.
“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added… [from the] ever watchful providence of Almighty God…. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.…I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, …to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Lincoln was not a Catholic, nor even really a Christian, but he believed in a “beneficent” power greater than himself. People like him, and like you who celebrate Thanksgiving with a Mass, are America’s best hope. May you enjoy the blessings of peace and joy with family and friends today, granted to those who put God first, thanking Him with grateful hearts. With Our lady, let us sing, Now thank we all our God, from whom all blessings flow.