Academy Award winners get a lot of ribbing for their acceptance speeches. You know: those ramblings that go on and on until the orchestra sounds a warning bar of here-comes-the-hooked-cane-to-yank-you-offstage theme music.
Personally, I find these speeches marvelous. Folks awarded with the recognition of a lifetime take this singular opportunity of personal triumph to express their gratitude for all sorts of people who are not standing on that stage. The spotlight is uniquely trained on them, yet they choose to deflect such precise attention to the many others who contributed to their moment of glory.
How cool is that? If Oscar Night is anything, it’s a celebration of gratitude. We get to hear unguarded shout-outs to Mom and Dad, spouse and kids, the high school teacher who made a difference. There’s an outpouring of love for agents and producers, directors and actors. Some awardees thank the Deity. Others bless those who believed in the picture. But in all of this, what comes across most clearly is that these talented people are deeply aware that none of us gets where we’re going on our own.
We each have a boatload of folks to whom we need to express our thanks. In our success, they should and do come along for the ride.
Ancient Israel, like other cultures around them, knew that rituals of thanksgiving were necessary for the health of the individual and the community. They invented a special todah, or thanks offering, for the purpose of expressing gratitude to God. It involved the preparation of unleavened cakes and wafers, along with leavened bread (evidently God likes both flat and fluffy baked goods, like the rest of us!), to be presented to the priest.
As with most religious sacrifices, part of this offering was to be consumed in a ritual fire. But in the case of a thanks offering, only one bread of each type went to the sacrifice. The rest went to the priest—because he and his family enjoy the flat and fluffy stuff too (Lev. 7:11–14).
Apart from thanks offerings, Israel also composed a variety of prayers that include an element of thanksgiving. Among the 150 biblical psalms, 52 supply a word of thanks and many are fundamentally directed to the task of offering praise and gratitude. If you’re looking for a special prayer over your Thanksgiving table this month, you’ll find verses or sections of psalms to suit any gathering.
Consider Psalm 34:19 if it’s been a rough year of dodging bullets, as this one expresses gratitude for deliverance: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.” Or acknowledge the blessings of a particularly good year with Psalm 65:11: “You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness.”
Psalm 41:3 may ring true if a loved one has recently come through a season of illness: “The Lord sustains them on their sickbed; in their illness you heal all their infirmities.” Make room for wonder with Psalm 92:5: “How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep!”
For a group looking for a responsive prayer, Psalm 118:1 works great across the table by sections or couplets: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” Psalm 136 also performs well responsively, and it’s even simpler for the host, since you only need a leader’s copy of the psalm. Everyone else just keeps responding with a line even the kids can remember: “For his steadfast love endures forever.”
Finally, you can’t go wrong with Psalm 67:6, the harvest prayer concise enough to need no editing at the feast: “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.”
In the 20-plus years I’ve written Testaments, only once before have I reflected on Thanksgiving Day in November. This isn’t because I disregard the importance of being grateful.
Obviously, Thanksgiving is not a Catholic feast, nor is it a holy day in the obligatory sense. Inaugurated by President Washington in 1789, Thanksgiving was observed only intermittently until the time of President Lincoln, who made it a federal holiday during the Civil War in 1863. The Catholic Church came to the feast, so to speak, only belatedly in the 20th century, with the composition of an optional missal selection for the day.
Despite being a secular holiday, Thanksgiving remains a hugely popular observance for families or communities that like to gather and eat. Some 44 million people in the United States travel to be somewhere dear to their hearts on this day—that’s one seventh of the country in motion, which makes for some serious traffic on the ground and in the air. Many more citizens, we can imagine, are already “home,” so they don’t need to join the holiday caravan.
While the Mass crowd is often thin on this day, before we judge our neighbors for this let’s keep in mind that there’s no obligation to attend church on Thanksgiving. But we do have an imperative to be grateful—on this and other days. As church father St. Ambrose put it, “No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” The key word here is returning, which recognizes that we have a particular recipient for our gratitude who is the source of every blessing.
For believers, this means more than a generic sense of being glad to be alive and making the rent, or having family or friends to gather with. It’s much more than celebrating that we get one day of the year to pig out without a guilty conscience. People of faith “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever” (1 Chron. 16:34). We don’t want to be numbered among the nine lepers in the gospel who, once cured, promptly shrugged off the source of their healing.
Given the chance, those who gather at your table may make like Oscar winners, offering a litany of all that they’re grateful for across a lifetime. Depending on the length of their lives and the length of your table, the meal might grow cold if you employ this format in lieu of grace.
Someone at your table may be moved to go on an extended tour of their blessings, like St. Faustina Kowalska who noted: “For a whole hour I remained steeped in adoration and thanksgiving, contemplating, one by one, the benefits I had received from God and also my own minor shortcomings. All that this year contained has gone into the abyss of eternity. Nothing is lost. I am glad that nothing gets lost.”
We’re glad as well that one’s gratitude may be boundless. But there’s a limit to how long most of us are willing to keep our forks in park.
Asking each person to name one reason for gratitude goes faster and gives everybody the chance to consider how each of us experiences blessings at this time. And remember that we can be grateful for more than this year’s material benefits. St. John of Ávila observed: “A single, ‘Blessed be God!’ when things go wrong is of more value than a thousand acts of thanksgiving when things are to our liking.”
My favorite idea on thanksgiving comes from modern mystic Evelyn Underhill: “God is always coming to you in the Sacrament of the Present Moment. Meet and receive Him there with gratitude in that sacrament.” That’s a thought we can take all the way through dessert.
Image: Unsplash cc via Christiann Koepke