Friday, November 18, 2016 - Updated: 6:00 am
QUESTION: I have always thought of Thanksgiving as just another holiday. But I have friends who remind everyone that it was (and is) a very “holy” day begun by grateful pilgrims. Do we as Catholics give it that much “religious” significance?
ANSWER: The idea of “thanksgiving” was a religious theme long before the Plymouth colony. The great prayers of Passover were rooted in giving thanks for the great act of deliverance from destruction and slavery. The word “Eucharist” comes into English from a Greek word meaning “to give thanks.”
But as we consider the general notion of giving thanks, there is an inherent tension. It seems to be rooted in the question, “For what am I giving thanks?” Some repeatedly say that it is difficult to give thanks to others (even God) when in reality we work so very hard for what we have. They say (as they look over the Thanksgiving Day table): “Didn’t I work to provide this food?” While some might dismiss these questions as irrelevant or even silly, they really are important to consider if we are ever to make “thanksgiving” a real part of our prayer.
The answer seems rooted in the idea of “ultimate gifts.” It is true that most of us work to provide the food for our tables (even at Thanksgiving). But it is important to look beyond the obvious. Who gave us the talent or skills that enable us to do so? Who helped us get the job we have? Who cares for us when we are ill so that we can work? So much of what we do is dependent in many ways on the consistent assistance of others. And that is certainly true of what we daily receive from God.
At times we overestimate our own efforts and lose sight of what others do to help us. That help can be unseen or even unknown, but nevertheless very real.
We also tend to think that we earn everything by what we do. While that is unwise generally, it is dangerous when we apply it to God. There, we earn nothing. All is gift. That includes faith, the ground of our being and relationship with God. It is impossible to earn it; it is clearly God’s gift. We tend to think that we are in a bargaining relationship with God, or worse yet that we are doing favors for God by the way we provide a pittance of gratitude for an immeasurable love or eternal salvation.
Can you imagine being at the gates of heaven and demanding entry because of what we did? We did not earn the fruits of the death of Christ on the cross. We did not earn the sacraments or the word of God. They are gifts. What we do in response to God’s gifts is very important, but that response cannot be construed as working “to earn” even more. Our “thanksgiving” should be motivated by a pure sense of gratitude. And there is the point of the “ultimate gift.” It is to God that we give thanks because all really comes from God.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.