Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays where God is still given a seat at the table.
While the consumer aspects of Easter and Christmas seem to have banished their Christian roots, Thanksgiving actually encourages thinking beyond ourselves and our material goods. It invites us to pause and acknowledge, above and beyond the fruits of our own labors, a relationship with an Other who is active in ways we cannot explain and are not directly responsible for.
There’s no shortage of proof that being consciously grateful is healthy. That said, I tend to bristle at the promotion of a more secular concept of gratitude. Especially given that as Catholics – a uniquely Eucharistic people – there is so much more to give and receive when we lift thanksgiving to a higher plane.
Amidst the popularity of gratitude journals, pillow covers, wall hangings and hashtags we can lose sight of the divine source of all we have to be thankful for and the breadth of what that all entails.
My bristling at these more external vestiges of gratitude could very likely be my own shortcoming, although it’s based on experiences of primarily being encouraged to be grateful when I’m facing some difficulty.
A knee-jerk reaction – like a coping mechanism of sorts – to turn away from suffering: Focus on what you have to be thankful for. Remember the good times. Just hold on until things get better. Try to think about how many people have it harder. Be glad you’re not dealing with (insert whatever might be heavier than the cross you’re carrying).
Besides minimizing and dismissing real experiences, this practice of gratitude can be shallow and short-sighted. And in terms of Thanksgiving, it would be like inviting God to sit at our table of plenty as long as he comes dressed as anything but the crucified Jesus.
Actually, my most profound moments of gratitude and thanksgiving have come in the midst of real despair and darkness. During those times, it was first and foremost Christ crucified who quietly accompanied me and reminded me that the greatest gift and blessing is his love; how his care and his mercy can bring good out of everything, even situations I can’t find anything to feel grateful for on a human level.
We have heard repeatedly that God doesn’t need our thanks or praise – that our thanksgiving adds nothing to his greatness. What is amazing is that, by the very action of our thanksgiving directed to God, we receive even more gifts of grace. This is particularly true of our efforts to trust his wisdom and providence when the blessings come in disguise.
If we can align our eyes to the Father’s supernatural sight, our ears to the Spirit’s action in silence and our senses to the life-giving water Jesus waits to offer us then we can experience some of the beatitude of which he speaks in the Gospel.
The paradoxes of providence are everywhere in Scripture – and they are everywhere in our daily lives – all of them directed not as pleasant happenings along our path, but invitations to greater friendship with him, to be more like him.
At the Last Supper, Jesus celebrated the thanksgiving that we partake in every time we attend Mass. Before taking the bread and wine – before giving his life for our redemption – he gave thanks, and he commanded we continue to do that in remembrance of him.
Our most important reflection this Thanksgiving could be not what blessings we can point to around the table, but on who is their ultimate provider. To whom are we directing our thanks? How are we cooperating with his action of creation in the world, in our lives and souls?
We might consider asking not what we are grateful for, but why? And for what purpose? To feel secure in our abilities to provide for ourselves and our loved ones? Or to surrender our trust to God in years of plenty and those of drought? To continue taking the loving hand we believe cares for us, even when his wisdom is a mystery?
In these ways, we won’t have simply invited God to our Thanksgiving tables, we will have seated him at the place of honor. We will listen to him raise a toast, opening our hearts and minds for him to show us his greatest gifts and blessings. He will not only dine with us, he will offer himself as the most satisfying meal, and he will stay with us and remain in us that day and every day.