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LUIS M RODRIGUEZ: Be full of thanks, grace this Thanksgiving

Faith - Luis Rodriguez

Luis M. Rodriguez is the priest-in-charge at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

Undoubtedly, Thanksgiving is one of our nation’s most important holidays. We were all taught its origin stems from the celebration of the first successful harvest among the pilgrim fathers and mothers who had come to settle in New England in the early 17th century. They set aside a day to give thanks to God for their survival over the first year in the New World.

It is lesser known, that the day was observed only sporadically in the early years of the new republic, and that lobbying for its recognition as a national holiday was begun in earnest by Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale in 1827. Finally in 1863, while the American Civil War was raging, it was declared a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. It was moved to its present fourth Thursday place in 1941 so as not to fall too close to Christmas.

In the Episcopal Church — the denomination to which I belong — it is considered a major feast alongside those of the church’s great saints. Yet, as a national observance its importance lies in that it is a celebration for people of all religions and none.

It is perhaps the only example of a religious, yet completely not religion-specific, holiday.

Everyone needs to give thanks. It is a defining aspect of our humanity, almost an involuntary response to the good things that come our way. Yet another very human tendency can very easily get in the way — our willingness to take things for granted.

Some years ago and in the midst of terrible hurricanes that hit badly our southern states, I listened to a broadcaster speaking from Alabama. She mentioned how in the storms’ aftermath she now said a quick and quiet prayer of thanks every time she switched on a light and it actually came on, or every time she turned the tap and water gushed out.

For us in the first world such commonplace occurrences are indeed so commonplace that we take them for granted. Power, water, trash collection, stocked shelves at the supermarket, heat in our homes — all these are not the norm for vast majorities of our sisters and brothers in many, many parts of the world (sometimes for brothers and sisters very close to us indeed).

Now, of course, I am sure that what I write here is not new to you who read it. You have heard it before and quite possibly from childhood. And yet this information has more often than not been used to inculcate a sense of guilt for what we have, rather than in order to nurture a response of thanksgiving for what has been given us.

The Roman Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen called the latter an “attitude of gratitude.” The fact is that thanksgiving is not an act or action, but it is an attitude, a way of living in the world. It is a way of interpreting reality. It is a lens through which we see life. The specific instances of giving thanks are simply the springs that rise to the surface from the undercurrent of gratitude that consistently and quietly nurtures the life of thanksgiving.

The life of thanksgiving is a spiritual discipline and like all spiritual disciplines, day by day it molds and shapes us more fully into the people God calls us to be. The ability to say “thank you” and to give thanks is a sign of the redeemed life. To give thanks is intimately connected to grace, it is indicative of a grace-full life. In Spanish this is very clearly seen: “thanks” and “grace” are the same word: gracias. In English the connection between the two survives in the phrase “saying grace.”

Thanksgiving is not something we do. It is something we are. For Christians, it is a defining attitude. The chief act of worship — the Eucharist — is an act of thanksgiving. Eucharist means thanksgiving.

As we prepare once again to gather this Thanksgiving Day, may we not just give thanks but may our hearts be turned toward becoming thank-full, grace-full people, appreciative of all the good gifts we have received. May we live lives that reflect in the world a genuine “attitude of gratitude.”

— Luis M. Rodriguez is the priest-in-charge at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.