And, anyway, some may wonder, what is there really to be thankful for?
Some of you who watched the HBO series Succession may recall an episode from the first season, set on Thanksgiving Day, when the much too rich and much too dysfunctional Roy family and their guests go around the table and say what each one is thankful for. As you’d expect, most of the thanks are perfunctory – for the food, for family, for having been made to feel welcome in the family, etc. The obvious awkwardness of the scene may be one of the few occasions when the overly rich and overly dysfunctional Roy clan come across as almost normal in their awkwardness.
And maybe there is something awkward about Thanksgiving itself. Thanksgiving is – or at least it used to be – the ultimate American holiday. In recent years, however, it has more and more become just a prelude to Black Friday, which itself in recent years increasingly seemed to begin sometime on Thanksgiving Day itself. Of course, if we think of America as the world capital of out-of-control, predatory capitalism, then perhaps Black Friday should be thought of as the ultimate American holiday. But some of us certainly are old enough to remember when holidays were really holidays, when most people didn’t have to work; and we can remember Thanksgiving as it was then, when it really was the ultimate American holiday, and its story was one with the story we tell about our national origins.
At least since the Civil War, the New England narrative of the pilgrims, has served as the symbolic centerpiece of our national imagination. The PBS series The American Experience ran a 2-hour show on the Pilgrims some years ago. An excellent program, worth the effort to watch whenever it is repeated, it highlights the Pilgrims' relationship with the world around them before they came to America and with the indigenous peoples they encountered after they arrived, some of whom made a mutually beneficial alliance with the Pilgrims against other Indian tribes. This was possible in part because they already spoke some English as a result of earlier encounters with Europeans, and because of the extensive devastation recently brought about by a plague that had almost wiped out the tribes that had previously lived in the area where the Pilgrims would settle. When the Pilgrims' arrived exactly 400 years ago this month, they found not some pristine wilderness, some re-imagined Garden of Eden, but a place of death and desolation. What we now look back on as the first "Thanksgiving," was a celebration of sheer survival and relief from the shared, mutual losses experienced by both the natives and the English settlers.
The Pilgrims had abandoned Europe for America early in the apocalyptic conflict of that continent's Thirty Years' War, which began in 1618, - only to find the fruit of another apocalypse here in America. Out of all this tragedy, a new society would be built. If it wasn't quite the biblical "City on a Hill" that it aspired to be (and that the Puritan settlers some 10 years later would explicitly challenge it to be), the Pilgrims at least aspired. And they attempted the next best thing with a social contract (the famous “Mayflower Compact" we all learned about in school) creating for a fallen world a government based on the consent of the governed.
Historians and others can argue about the precise significance of that "social contract." Symbolically, however, it expressed something of our American self-understanding of what it means to be a people, whose freedom is protected by a system of law. Having just come through a period of notorious lawlessness at the highest levels, we as a society would do well to relearn the lessons our Pilgrim predecessors understood so well about the "guardrails," as they are commonly now called, that are so essential to who we are and who we hope to be.
We celebrate Thanksgiving this year - as so often in our history since Abraham Lincoln nationalized the holiday in 1863 - in a time of turmoil, when once again the world seems poised on the abyss of apocalyptic crisis thanks to this terrible pandemic, when almost everything we used to take for granted seems to have evaporated all at once, this terrible time which has so separated and isolated us, so divided and diminished us, and so shattered all our empty illusions of individualism, national exceptionalism, and self-sufficiency. As Lincoln wisely sensed, there are lessons for us in the present - from the faith, which the Pilgrims kept even in a time of crisis and in a place of devastation, and from the hope, that they lived by even in spite of their suffering and grief.
The Pilgrims probably would never have read the Book of Sirach at their Thanksgiving feast, but I think the reading [Sirach 50:22-24] we heard earlier would have spoken to their experience, as I hope it still speaks to ours:
And now, bless the God of all, who has done wondrous things on earth;
Who fosters people’s growth from their mother’s womb
and fashions them according to his will!
May he grant you joy of heart and may peace abide among you;
May his goodness toward us endure in Israel to deliver us in our days.
Homily for Thanksgiving Eve, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 25, 2020.
The entire Mass may be watched at:
(Photo: Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1899)