Like virtually every American, I learned the traditional image of “The First Thanksgiving” when I was a child. I remember making pilgrim hats out of construction paper and brightly colored hand turkeys at school. I learned about the generosity of the Native Americans who shared in the meal, and that since that first day, the American people have continued to celebrate the day every year with a great feast of turkey. Thanksgiving isn’t a huge production of a holiday in my family, but we always celebrate it and take the opportunity to enjoy good food, good company, and reflect on our year and the ups and downs it has brought (and accidentally set something on fire as my family is accident-prone on every holiday).
But, without trying to get political or claiming that I have a full grasp of the complex realities, I know what I was taught as a child is not the full picture. Throughout my education, I was taught a little more of the complexities and developed a more nuanced understanding. There was no one lightbulb moment for me, but I realized the idyllic and cherubic imagery is not the whole story, and that, as it involved many human beings, the truth is far more messy than the pile of dishes in the sink at the end of the meal. How we approach this celebration has come under scrutiny and thought in our culture. Even then, though, the controversy and discussion surrounding it all seemed to be rather distant to me. Important, absolutely, but I wasn’t really sure what this would mean for my celebration of this holiday.
However, earlier this year I discovered something about my family history that invited me to re-examine these questions of how to celebrate and what “thanksgiving” (as a holiday and concept) can mean as an American and Catholic (let alone as a priest). I was doing some genealogical research and discovered that I am descended from one Constance Hopkins, a passenger aboard the Mayflower. Now, I realize that this does not make me terribly unique as there are an estimated 10 to 35 million descendants of Mayflower passengers alive in the U.S. today. However, this still gave me pause and made me reflect more deeply on the realities and ramifications of what Thanksgiving means. In some way, I was more deeply connected to that historical event than I had previously realized. Learning of my descendancy made me think of the event not only as historical, but also familial. It made me look at the first Thanksgiving almost as a family story, something I was more personally invested in, for better and for worse.
As the day approaches, I don’t think this revelation of my familial connection to the first Thanksgiving and all of its complexities means that I should do away with Thanksgiving as a holiday. Nor do I think I am personally responsible for any sinful action taken by my ancestors. But this new knowledge made me take a step back and reflect on what it means, and what I can be called to do as a Catholic in light of that.
The concept of giving thanks itself is a very ancient one, found all throughout the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms, and constantly in Catholic worship, as the word “Eucharist” itself means thanksgiving! Gratitude is a very human thing, and indeed can make us happier. On a spiritual level, it connects us more deeply to God and his love, seeing that God who has made all things is present in our lives and walking with us. Regularly engaging in prayerful thanksgiving in our daily lives is a wonderful thing, and a way to take the spirit of the holiday with us. To be a thankful person, to have a thankful life, is to be a eucharistic person.
This attitude of thanksgiving and our faith can help us to better approach the modern holiday of Thanksgiving. We can simultaneously acknowledge the complexity of the first Thanksgiving, but also still have a day to express thankfulness in our lives and communities. We can live into this tension, not seeking to ignore the hardships of our life, but being intentional about our gratitude for what we do have. In seeing and recognizing our blessings, we can also see the way that God is calling us to share and give of ourselves to the world and to those in need. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48). Perhaps not the most immediately uplifting passage for Thanksgiving day, but I think it is more uplifting than we might initially think. In seeing what we have, we are thankful and grow into a deeper relationship with God. We see the way God invites us to mission and to care for others. Our relationship with God helps us to see how we use what we have, tangible and intangible, to serve in mission and love.
This sense of thankfulness leading to mission has been essential to my life as a priest. I am blessed with so much care and support for all my needs, and I am extremely thankful for all the people who make that possible. This does not mean, however, that I get to rest on my laurels with these blessings. Both God and the people of God expect – and rightfully so – that I give back and serve the whole community.
This relationship of gratitude and mission ultimately helps us to live more deeply into the modern holiday of Thanksgiving. To have a day that we spend with close friends and family, to appreciate what we have, to share in a good meal, but to also know we are sent forth into the world. We step into the messiness and complicatedness of the lives of others to be a sign of God’s love. Thus, we can culturally inherit a holiday that has a complicated history, and still allow God to draw straight with the crooked lines of our world. We can engage in honest reflection and discussion of the past, and yet also have a day to be thankful and see how God is calling us forward into love. As God says through the prophet Isaiah: “I will lead the blind on a way they do not know; by paths they do not know I will guide them. I will turn darkness into light before them, and make crooked ways straight. These are my promises: I made them, I will not forsake them.” (42:16).
This year, I plan on continuing to be open to where thankfulness can lead me in service to others. I do look forward to sharing a special meal with my Paulist brothers, but by facing the complex tensions of the holiday in a new light, and through faith, I have a greater appreciation for the day and especially the concept of Thanksgiving. This doesn’t mean that I’ve figured out the complex narrative realities or how to reconcile them for all, but I have a great sense of how the day helps me in my spiritual journey, even throughout the year. In thanksgiving for what I have received from God and others around me, I can more clearly see how I give back to the community through my role as a priest and fellow child of God.