November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving: life to the fullest

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
Credit: Unsplash
Credit: Unsplash

Like the pilgrims who gathered with their neighbors at Plymouth Rock after their first successful harvest in 1621, the early American colonists celebrated days of thanksgiving. When a drought ended or a war won, they would set aside a day to give thanks for the favorable outcome. For example, after the victory over British forces in the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, the Continental Congress declared a Thanksgiving holiday. The thirteen original colonies stopped their ordinary routine in order “to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to [Almighty God] for benefits received, and to implore …farther blessings…”  

Two years after the signing of the Constitution of the United States, on September 28, 1789, Congress formally asked President George Washington to name a national day of thanksgiving. It was Elias Boudinot, a statesman from New Jersey, who introduced the resolution for this first national Thanksgiving Day. It was to be observed as a day of prayer “… acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.” 

Wasting no time, five days after receiving Congress’ resolution, Washington designated Thursday, November 26, 1789 as that day of thanks for the blessings which God bestowed on our country. The tradition of celebrating such a day of thanks continued after that first national holiday. But, not all the states observed their Thanksgiving on the same day. 

In the midst of the bloodshed of the civil war, President Lincoln harkened back to the example of the nation’s first president. However, he declared not one, but two Thanksgiving celebrations. The first was on Thursday, August 6, 1863 to commemorate the Union’s victory at Gettysburg. The second was a nationwide holiday, to be observed on the last Thursday of every November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Eventually, President Roosevelt standardized the celebration of Thanksgiving. On December 26, 1941, he established the fourth Thursday in November as the Thanksgiving Day holiday for the entire country. 

Thanksgiving is in the life blood of America. From the very birth of our nation until today, Americans have set aside a day to express their gratitude to God for his goodness to us. As our first President so wisely proclaimed, “… it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor…”

On a natural level, an attitude of gratitude contributes to our mental health. Our consumer culture fosters the illusion that the more things we possess, the greater will be our happiness. But, the drive to have more and more things only makes us restless. It cannot make us happy. However, gratitude for what we do have actually improves our well-being. It helps us enjoy our lives and form strong relationships with others. If we are not grateful, then, no matter how much we have, we will not be happy. We will always want to have something more.

In truth, there is nothing that we possess that has not come from the generous hands of God. There is nothing that we have earned or merited except by the wise disposition of God’s providence. When we thank God for his blessings, we acknowledge him as the source of all that is good. Such gratitude places us in the right relationship with God. As the Psalmist reminds us, “Those who offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving honor me” (Ps 50:23). 

Each year we pause as a nation to celebrate Thanksgiving. We take count of our many blessings. Freedom.  Family. Friends and Faith. Sorrows and hardships touch all our lives. Yet, each of us has many reasons to be thankful. As followers of Jesus, we heed the encouragement of St. Paul to “pray without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstances…” (1 Th 5:16-17). For a grateful heart turns even the simplest meal into a feast and makes us live in peace with our neighbors. Thanksgiving is not just a day. It is the way to live life to the fullest.

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.