Orbiting Dicta

Thanksgiving Day

Sir 50:22-24
1 Cor 1:3-9
Lk 17:11- 19

Earlier this week, the first book printed in America back in 1640, The Book of Psalms, sold at auction for a record sum of 12.5 million dollars, the highest price ever paid for a printed book – more than for a Gutenberg Bible or a first folio of Shakespeare’s plays.  Only 11 copies survive, two of which belonged to a Boston church, which will use the money to fund its charitable activities.  It was a fitting prelude to the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving Day.

Early this morning I checked the news stations to see how America is observing the day – there was no mention at all of going to church or Whom we might be thankful to as we count our blessings.  That’s so yesterday.  Or last century.  Today it seems that we count our blessings with cold hard credit cards.

Originally, Thanksgiving Day was a harvest festival, but the frost melted off that pumpkin a long time ago.  Today, it marks the official beginning of what is now called “the Holiday Season,” during which millions of people indulge in the great American pastime.  Not just football, though there will be plenty of that, nor even watching the Thanksgiving Day parades.  It’s shopping.  Some newscasters have even begun to refer to Thanksgiving Day as Brown Thursday, the day before Black Friday.  As if Turkey Day wasn’t bad enough.

In the midst of helium-filled comic book character balloons, jolly reindeer, Ronald McDonalds, floats and marching bands, and, of course, the grand entrance of Santa Claus,  Americans may not be thinking a lot about harvests or gratitude, much less God.  The parades, of course, are traditionally sponsored by giant department stores, and the message is clear — buy.  That’s why the government gave you am income tax refund, remember?  So be a patriot: spend.  The economic health of the nation depends on you.

Earlier this week Christmas trees were lit ceremoniously in civic plazas throughout the nation, and stores obligingly stayed open till ten P.M.  Many will be open today, too.  They usually are, but this is different. K-Mart opened at 6 AM and will remain open for 41 hours.  What’s not to love?

The Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis has come at an opportune moment, for he correctly identifies what is probably the besetting sin of our time – the idolization of money.  It matters little what we buy.  The important thing is that we buy.  And buy a lot. I’m not sure whether it’s greed or addiction, or a combination of both, but it’s certainly our reality.

Needless to say, the readings suggested for today strike a different note.  The first is from the late book of Ben Sira.  It describes how the high priest, Simeon the Just, the son of Onias, repaired the Temple during the struggles with the Greek conquerors after the death of Alexander the Great. [Sirach 15:1]

Finishing the service at the altars, and arranging the offering to the Most High, the Almighty,  he held out his hand for the cup and poured a drink offering of the blood of the grape; he poured it out at the foot of the altar, a pleasing odor to the Most High, the king of all. Then the sons of Aaron shouted; they blew their trumpets of hammered metal; they sounded a mighty fanfare as a reminder before the Most High. Then all the people together quickly fell to the ground on their faces to worship their Lord, the Almighty, God Most High.  Then the singers praised him with their voices in sweet and full-toned melody. [14-18]

St. Paul, of course, is always finding a reason to be thankful, even in the most difficult situations.  He must have been hard to live with.

We last heard this gospel account just a few weeks ago, on the 28th Sunday, when the readings focused on gratitude.  So in a sense, we have already considered the importance of giving thanks.   But Thanksgiving Day is different.  It’s a very American holiday, one attributed to the English Puritans in 1621, just 19 years before that Book of Psalms was printed.  Actually the French Canadians beat the English to it by about 50 years, and it is still an annual custom up there.  The Spanish may have had one down in Florida as early as 1565.  Our first National Day of Thanksgiving, was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the American Civil War, as a day of fasting and prayer for national unity.  President Franklin Roosevelt moved it to the fourth Thursday in November in the war year, Dec. 1941, in an effort to boost economic morale.  He’d certainly be astonished at how that has caught on in more recent times.

I think I’ve told the story several times, but don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before.  Several years ago, Oprah Winfrey’s secretary called me with a request.  Where, she asked, in the writings of Meister Eckhart can we find Oprah’s favorite quotation?  In case you aren’t a regular that would be “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘Thank you,’ that’s enough.”

I looked for a long time.  Several other people had asked about the citation, but I had seen anything exactly like it in Eckhart’s works.   Then one day, I happened on a slightly different translation from German Sermon number 34: “If a man had no more to do with God than to be thankful, that would suffice.” [Sermon 34, Walshe translation No. 27, Vol. I. p. 209.] However you translate it, thanksgiving or gratitude is one of the highest forms of prayer as well as one of the noblest human acts we’re capable of.

Grace and gratitude go together.  It’s the same word, essentially.  So is graceful.  I was reminded by a young Greek buy some years ago as we flew to Ireland next to each other that the word for “Thank You” in Greek today is the same as it was in Jesus’ day, although pronounced a little differently.  Efchristo. Eucharistéo.

We have much to be thankful for – we have everything to be thankful for.  Despite suffering and hardship, not least that of our neighbors in Washington, Coal City, and Pekin, so many of whom expressed thanks to God after the tornadoes that their lives had been spared.  The rest can be rebuilt, just like the Temple. We should remember them in our prayers as well as our charity.  And for everything, utterly everything,  let us “give thanks to God always,” as St. Paul said, “ …because of the grace of God that has been given us in Christ Jesus” …