The Gospel reading for Thanksgiving Day Mass — an option in the United States as the rest of the Church commemorates the Nov. 22 feast of St. Cecilia — doesn’t mention the Mayflower. There are no pilgrims and natives coming together over a turkey dinner in there, either. No apple cider. No football.
Instead, we hear a classic teaching on thankfulness straight from the mouth of the Lord. It’s Luke 17:11-19 — the account of Jesus’ healing of 10 lepers. After being cured, nine went their way and never looked back. Only one returned to say “Thank You.” In fact, he went further than that. He threw himself at the Great Physician’s feet and glorified God “in a loud voice.”
Remember Jesus’ response? “Stand up and go,” he told the man. “Your faith has saved you.”
It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to state that, with this special blessing, Christ was not recognizing that onetime act of the “lone thanker” but, rather, his ongoing attitude. Here was a man — a Samaritan foreigner, no less — who surely gave thanks to God always and everywhere.
We would do well to follow his example. Could there be a better blessing to remind us 24/7, 365 days a year, than daily family life?
Grace before Thanksgiving dinner can provide a marvelous initial inspiration to build on, says Norbertine Father Alfred McBride. The popular author, educator and EWTN host points out that praying grace before every family meal blesses the family as well as the food.
“The word grace — gratia in Latin — means thanks,” he says before suggesting that the prayers be said “naturally and simply, sometimes with the children leading.”
For holidays and other special occasions, “families can join hands and each member tells a little story about what they want to thank Christ for,” he adds. “Early childhood is a very good time” to establish such family traditions.
Just a few miles away from the Thanksgiving hotspot of Plymouth Rock and Plimoth Plantation, John and Heidi Bratton of North Falmouth, Mass., offer thanks to God before every meal with their five youngsters and teens. Each family member takes a turn leading these mealtime prayers.
In preparation for Thanksgiving Day itself, the family begins Nov. 1 when Heidi places a bare tree or collection of dried twigs on the table accompanied by a bowl of paper leaves. Each leaf bears the name of a member of their extended family. Whoever leads the nightly dinner prayer picks a leaf and begins an around-the-table thanksgiving for that family member. After the prayer, the leaf is placed on a branch. By “T-Day,” the once-bare branches are a blooming centerpiece.
“Many members of our extended family live far away,” says Heidi. Those members are not closely familiar to the family. “So sometimes there’s not much more to say than ‘Thank you, God, for So-and-So.’” But this is enough, she says, to remind all present that “it’s not what you do but who you are for which we are thankful.”
In Atlanta, the Flanigan family — Mike, Laurie and their six children — have developed a number of customs to reinforce the idea that God is worthy of gratitude no matter the circumstances of life at any given point.
“We don’t pass a church without making the Sign of the Cross and saying ‘Thank You Jesus,’” says Laurie. And when the drive is done, as they’re pulling into the driveway, everyone thanks the Lord for getting the family back home safely.
Our Need to Thank
Of course, the world at large has its own attitude — and, oftentimes, it’s not one of gratitude.
On his travels, Father McBride finds many young people aren’t trained to say Thank You even when something has been done for them. Instead they have what he calls “an entitlement outlook. Some are forgetful, he adds, and some “don’t know how to thank.”
“We have to train our young people in the art of thanking,” he says. “Thanksgiving is the way to overcome selfishness, to realize people don’t have to give you anything. God didn’t have to make me, but he did. It’s my responsibility to thank him for what he does.”
The priest is also quick to point out that God doesn’t really need our thanks — but we really do need what we get by thanking him.
Inculcating the spirit and meaning of thanksgiving isn’t an overnight process.
“The basic idea we have tried to instill through every activity is simply that we, as parents, are thankful for each of our children and for our family unit,” says Heidi Bratton. The kids know they are loved not for what they achieve or produce but “simply for who they and we are — gifts from God.”
One of several ways they get this across: Every night they sing an evening prayer and everyone blesses every other family member with a cross on the forehead. Heidi explains the lesson: “It is another way of showing ‘I value you. I ask God to bless you. I am thankful for you.’”
“I thank the kids after every Mass at which they serve on the altar,” adds Heidi. That leads to the ultimate thanksgiving — the Eucharist.
“Any time you go to Mass you’re giving thanks to God,” Father McBride points out. “The word Eucharist means Thanksgiving.”
“As children get older they learn Thanksgiving is not just a Thursday in November, but every Sunday it’s a Catholic feast,” he says.
Every event, and even every need, can become “an offering of thanksgiving,” the Catechism reminds us in No. 2638. “The letters of St. Paul often begin and end with thanksgiving, and the Lord Jesus is always present in it.”
St. Paul, of course, urged the Church: “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
That attitude of ongoing gratitude, come what may, made a big difference when the Flanigans recently moved to Atlanta from their lifelong home in Cincinnati.
“It was a huge sacrifice” for some members of the family, says Laurie. It was those kids’ response that most surprised mom and dad. “They say, all the time, ‘We’re thankful we’re here.’ They see God’s hand in the move and the many blessings” that have come with it.
Stated another way: They make every day Thanksgiving Day.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.