Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
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Spirituality: America, bless God
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Nov. 15, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)
By the time this column hits the eyes of readers, in many a household’s preparations for our national Thanksgiving holiday already will be underway. Some of the shopping will be done and special guests invited for the Big Dinner. For sure, the school kids will have started working scissors and glue on colored paper to fashion creative renditions of turkeys, pilgrims and Native Americans as the origin of the feast is handed on to yet another generation.
Many pastoral teams also will have started making preparations for special Thanksgiving Day Masses. A look at the liturgical calendar indicates that this year, Nov. 22, is simply Thursday of the 33rd week in Ordinary Time. The majority of the Roman Catholics throughout the world will be celebrating the memorial of St. Cecilia, virgin and martyr. In the United States, of course, we will have a totally different frame of reference and, yes, with ecclesial permission celebrate our national holiday.
Thanksgiving is a day of festivity that anchors our national consciousness — and this year, perhaps more than ever. The horrible tragedies of Sept. 11 in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania still sear our hearts if we permit their shocking reality to replay the horror. The stunning suddenness with which terrorists turned a peaceful, sunny day into death, destruction and immeasurable pain for thousands will make this year’s marking of Thanksgiving very sober indeed.
Our national tragedy poignantly presents us with the giftedness of life itself. The many blessings for which we give God thanks on the day of national holiday pale in significance in comparison to the fundamental gift of life itself.
Those who plan liturgies for Thanksgiving Day are challenged to select readings from Sacred Scripture which capture the spirit of our national celebration. The same liturgical books which direct us to the memorial of St. Cecilia suggest the use of Luke 17:11-19 — the story of the 10 lepers. It seems that this passage is selected, almost by default, for nearly every Thanksgiving Day Mass because of its explicit reference to expressions of gratitude — or lack thereof.
We have heard the story since childhood. Ten men who suffer from the dreaded disease of leprosy (and all the social and religious rejection which accompanies it) request healing from Jesus. Anticipating the special grace they are to receive, he sends them on their way to prove to the priests at the temple that they are clean and once again acceptable in places of prayer (as well that age’s equivalent of the local mall).
Even though all 10 are healed along the way, only one man returns to the Lord. He thanks Jesus for the cure and praises God for the unexpected gift of new life. This man, the Gospel tells us, was a Samaritan, a member of a social group whose distant relatives (600 years before Christ) had collaborated with the enemies of Judah.
The fact that this man was a Samaritan offers special focus at Thanksgiving time. It’s not so much that he returned to offer his “thank you” and the other nine were a bunch of ingrates. Nor is it just a matter than this man practiced better social etiquette in acknowledging the source of his healing.
This man, whom society in general judged to be cut off from any of God’s favor because of his presumed sinfulness, was the very one who not only said “thanks” but, more importantly, let his gratitude carry him into a relationship of saving grace.
We have no reason to believe that a disgruntled or mean Jesus restored the scourge of leprosy to the ungrateful nine. They were healed and presumably became reintegrated into society. Perhaps the local CNN broadcaster (or that age’s equivalent) interviewed them for their 15 seconds of glory. Perhaps those healed even said a prayer of thanksgiving at the dinner table that night.
But this other man, the despised Samaritan — he is the model for our Thanksgiving Feast. He carried with him a national identity, with all its blessings and curses. In imitation of this man from Samaria, Thanksgiving Day’s celebration must be for us more than a day for saying fleeting prayers at the dinner table. Indeed, in between watching football and basting the turkey, the day gives us opportunity to make more serious note than usual of the people, places, things and opportunities for which we are deeply grateful. Yet even as we make such a list, we are invited to gain perspective on our gratitude.
The Samaritan did more than say a quick prayer of thanks. He recognized that behind the gift he had received was a richer, unmerited and undeserved gift which manifested the heart of a loving giver. The man “connected” with the heart of Jesus and went on his way — not just a grateful man, but a changed citizen who had found his way into the Kingdom of God. Recognizing how much he had received and how freely it had been bestowed, his gratitude brought him back, not for the exercise of proper manners, but to embrace the heart of the One who had touched him. Genuine gratitude is not fully expressed until the motivation of the giver is acknowledged and both giver and receiver bask in the joy that blesses them both.
True thanksgiving is expressed not just in polite words of gratitude around a Feast of Plenty. It is celebrated in recognizing how radically gifted we are by life itself, from a Creator who lovingly holds us in the palm of his hand and meets us in our need. The song in our hearts this Thanksgiving is not just “God Bless America,” but “America, Bless God.”
(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish, Spokane. His latest book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.)
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