Fr. Roger J. Landry
Bishop Connolly High School, Fall River, MA
November 20, 2001
1) “What do we have to give thanks for this year, anyway? Our country’s been attacked. Thousands have died. We’re all under threat. We can’t even open our mail peacefully. We can’t fly peacefully. We’re in a war that may take years. The economy’s suffering. What in the world do we have to be thankful for?”
2) That was the gist of a phone call into a talk-radio program I was listening to in the car last week. The host was focusing on preparations for Thanksgiving and this woman called in objecting to the whole idea of having a Thanksgiving this year, because we are now living in a time of too much suffering, as she said. A few other callers shared her sentiments, that this was a Thanksgiving in which it was truly going to be hard to give thanks. I was waiting for the host or for some caller to call in to say that these people, although honest and sincere, were missing the whole point. That suffering and thanksgiving are not incompatible, but actually, in a paradoxical way, go together. But that call never came. After about 15 minutes, I took out my cell phone and tried to call in, but I couldn’t get through. I wanted to take the listeners back to the First Thanksgiving, and to see what those who started this tradition would have to say about our present situation and about our need always to give thanks.
3) That first Thanksgiving, which was held sometime in the Fall about 45 miles from here, was held after what anyone might call a disastrous year. The pilgrims had arrived December 26, 1620. Lacking sufficient provisions and shelter for winter, most settlers became ill within weeks. Ten of 17 husbands and fathers died with the “first infection” and of the 17 wives, only three were alive after three months. By April, more than half of the population had died of disease or famine. These bleak circumstances were punctuated by other forms of human tragedy. For example, William Bradford’s wife drowned as they disembarked from the Mayflower, leaving him a widower with a 1 year old son. But thanks to an English-speaking Indian named Squanto, they were able to learn some survival tricks in the New World, how to tap maple trees for sap, how to distinguish between poisonous and medicinal plants. How to plant Indian corn and fertilize it with dead fish. They had a sufficient harvest and they wanted to give thanks. Despite what almost everyone would have thought would have been the worst year of their lives, the fewer than 50 pilgrims left out of the 110 who had arrived ten months earlier, wanted to give thanks. They were still supremely confident in God’s providence. Providence comes from the word in Latin to “fore-see,” to “look out for,” and therefore, to “provide.” And they were confident that God, who foresees everything, who always looks out for us even when it might seem like he’s not, would indeed provide, as he did. No amount of personal suffering could shake that faith. No amount of personal hardship could rock their trust in a God whom they knew loved them and was looking over them.
4) So they had a feast to give thanks. They recognized that there were two primary recipients of their gratitude. The first and the principal one was God, who had brought them to this new land in the hope of religious freedom and had just blessed them with a good harvest. The second was others, those who had been God’s instruments in providing for them. So in their feast, they invited Squanto, another English-speaking Indian Samoset, and the chief of the local Wampanoags, Massasoit, to bring their families and share their joy. (Little did they know that their families numbered 90 souls) and their feast of thanksgiving lasted for three days.
5) Our Thanksgiving this year can be greatly enriched if we follow the example of those at the First Thanksgiving. Their example encourages us to count our blessings, not to focus on those things that we don’t prefer. To look at life as a whole and see how full the glass is. Their example encourages us to do three things: (1) To count our blessings and give thanks to the Lord of all blessings; (2) to give thanks to all those whose love and actions have given us these blessings (3) and to share these blessings with others.
6) We can start with the last of the three. The food that you have brought to this Mass and the money you have raised to help 50 families here in Fall River, especially many families who are suffering with life-threatening physical illnesses, is overwhelmingly generous. Mr. Connelly was describing to me yesterday that the amount of food that has been raised this year is by far the most Bishop Connolly has been able to get together since he arrived here. Such a sharing with others is most in keeping with the Spirit of Thanksgiving. Most of those you help will never meet you, but they will be grateful. And the Lord who sees of what you do will repay you. All of life needs to be this type of Thanksgiving, in which we, who have received so much, share those blessings — not just our food, but our talents, our energy, our faith, our love — with others.
7) Secondly, we’re called to give thanks to all those whose love and actions have given us blessings. So often each of us can act like nine of the ten lepers in today’s Gospel. We’ll shout out at the top of our lungs for something, like they did to be healed of their leprosy, but as soon as we get what we want, many of us don’t return to give thanks. Thanksgiving is a wonderful opportunity to thank those who have labored for us, whom we haven’t thanked enough for their dedication. There are a few groups of people that we should make a point of thanking.
• First, our parents. While we might not always see eye to eye with them, while they might have their shortcomings just like we do, they have sacrificed tremendously for us. You all have been in a generation in which your parents, very easily and legally, could have just gone down to a local Planned Parenthood Family Planning Center and killed you in the womb. But they loved you. They’ve sacrificed for you, to feed you, clothe you, to discipline you when you’ve needed it (and sometimes even when you might not have), to give you a good Catholic education. If you haven’t told them thanks in a while and that you love them, this is the time to do so. We never know how long God will continue to bless us with their earthly presence. Let’s not put off saying thanks. The same goes for grandparents and other members of our families.
• Another group that needs to be mentioned are our teachers and coaches. Oftentimes teaching can be a thankless job. Teachers put in long hours and get little pay out of love for their students, but too often too many students behave, again, like those nine lepers, and when, a few years’ down the road, they realize just how much their Connolly education has helped them, never return to say thanks. Please don’t let this Thanksgiving go by without thanking them for their sacrifices on your behalf.
• A third group would be friends, especially the friends who challenge us to become better. Because of familiarity, we can sometimes start to take them for granted and not to thank them regularly for the blessing they are. This Thanksgiving would be a great time to thank them for the blessings they are in our lives.
8 ) But the person we have most to thank is God. This is what the pilgrims realized, that everything good and adverse comes from Him. He loved us so much he created the world out of nothing for us; he gave us our immortal souls, he traded in His own son’s life for ours; he’s given us every good thing, including Crosses and difficulties to help us to die to ourselves so that we can become more like His Son, whom he created us to be. He’s the source of everything blessing. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive?”
9) We thank him by spending time with him. Mass, which is Thanksgiving. Not a spectator sport, but participatory. Just like you’ll bring up your gifts today, he wants you to bring yourselves today, to put yourselves in front of the altar, and be lifted up with His body, so that you might be more and more transformed. This is the place we can be like that one leper, recognizing that he had been cured, who returned “praising God with a loud voice,” throwing himself “on his face at the feet of Jesus to speak his praises.”