Thanksgiving is upon us. It is a day when we get together with our families to give thanks to God for the many blessings we have received. Thanksgiving is a national holiday and one which reminds us of the blessings bestowed upon us in our great nation. As the Christmas season draws nearer, with its many activities and distractions, Thanksgiving is a less hectic time which is very much welcomed and one that gives us an appropriate atmosphere for its celebration.
As we prepare for Thanksgiving, it is well to reflect upon the reality that giving thanks is part of the very nature of God Himself. We rightly think in terms of giving thanks to God but we do so because gratitude eternally flows from God. Gratitude is an expression of love. God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8) and gives Himself away in love. It is this love which is His life as a community of Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In their eternal expression of love for each other, the Persons of the Trinity also express gratitude to each other. That gratitude is so often reflected in the life of the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, who always prayed to His Father in a stance of giving thanks.
The thanksgiving which Jesus gave reflected both His divine and human nature. When He performed the miracle of multiplying bread for the crowd, He first gave thanks to His Father. Gratitude for food was an essential part of the Lord's life. This is sublimely reflected in His giving thanks to His Father at the Last Supper and then transforming bread and wine into His Body and Blood as the eternal covenant of His sacrifice for us. At His first Eucharist, Christ showed the fullness of the meaning of giving thanks which is precisely what the word “Eucharist” means.
He also showed how intimately love and gratitude are associated as He sacrificed Himself for us by giving Himself completely to the Father on the Cross. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, it is the Eucharist which reflects to us what the true meaning of giving thanks is all about. We give thanks to God for the food He gives us and especially for the Bread of Life which He gives us in the Eucharist.
Thanksgiving and forgiveness go hand-in-hand and are at the heart of Thanksgiving. In fact, it seems that gratitude precedes forgiveness and that forgiveness flows from giving thanks. That is why mercy is also of the very essence of God. When God created humanity and we sinned against Him, His response was not one of destruction but of forgiveness. His eternally giving thanks in love was naturally evident in the mercy He bestowed upon creation which culminated in His giving of His Son who gave His life on the Cross for our forgiveness. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, our giving thanks is always best expressed in forgiveness. As we prepare for and celebrate this Thanksgiving, it is a fitting time not only to reflect upon the many blessings for which we thank God, but also to consider how we might better express this gratitude in forgiveness.
The association of gratitude and forgiveness are well revealed in the Gospel passage of Jesus in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt18:23-25). Here Jesus tells the story of a gracious king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. One servant owed such an incredible amount that he had no way of paying it. He pleaded with the king to give him a chance. The king, with tremendous compassion, completely pardoned the servant and set him free without any further expectations. However, instead of manifesting his gratitude by being more understanding and forgiving toward others, the servant did the opposite. Immediately upon leaving the king, he met a fellow servant who owed him a mere fraction next to the debt that was pardoned him. Instead of recalling the king’s mercy in gratitude, he began to choke his fellow servant and had him put in jail until he paid back the debt. The unforgiving servant’s ingratitude is just incredulous. It reveals how an ungrateful person not only harms the peace of others but lives in a great deal of anger and unrest.
Forgiveness is not always easy to carry out. When we have been hurt, it is natural to want to retaliate and strike back. Such retaliation never does any good and only hurts us more in the long run. However, it is easier to forgive when we realize how much we have for which we should be thankful and especially to realize how often we have been forgiven. The compassion and mercy shown to us should prompt us, out of gratitude, to show the same for others. Only the forgiveness manifested on the Cross of Christ makes this possible.
We also realize that all that we have for which we are thankful comes to us as a gift from God. Even our talents and abilities are entrusted to us by God and we are not directly responsible for them. We have an obligation to foster them and utilize them for the good of others, but we cannot take credit for them. That is why Jesus tells us, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Lk 12:48). However, when it comes to our sins and shortcomings, these are the parts of our lives for which we are responsible and fully claim as our own. As St. Paul exclaims, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Co 11:30). Since God always forgives us, how much more in gratitude should we forgive others.
We live in a great nation with many blessings and freedoms for which we are deeply grateful. However, we live in times in which thankfulness and the capacity to forgive are not so obvious. One of the traditions of Thanksgiving is the pardon of a turkey. This national pardon is a sign of our nation’s gratitude and easily accepted. However, other pardons, such as the commutation of the death penalty or clemency toward an undocumented immigrant, might be much less tolerated even on a personal level. While our nation is built upon justice and must always uphold it in its highest form, gratitude should prompt us to have clemency and forgiveness. These are at the heart of the nature of Thanksgiving.
Let us celebrate Thanksgiving by giving thanks and showing forgiveness. Let us look for someone in our family, someone with whom we work, someone within our community or even someone we only know from afar who has in some way hurt us. True gratitude will prompt a forgiveness which will bring peace both to that person and to ourselves. Thanksgiving and forgiveness are expressions of each other. They are the very nature of God who for all eternity expresses thanksgiving in love and, in the course of human history, mercy and forgiveness.
A Blessed Thanksgiving to all!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
November 10, 2017