“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy uttered those words many years ago as a reminder of the duties that accompany our celebration of Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving calls us to evaluate what we treasure most and to give thanks to those who are responsible for our blessings.
One of the first Thanksgiving proclamations was made in 1789 by our first President George Washington, when he declared,
“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being…That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks – for his kind care and protection of the People of this country… And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord…and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions – to enable us all…to perform our…duties properly and punctually – to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed – to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations…and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord…”
In his address, President Washington requests the people of our great nation to offer prayers to God to keep us united as a nation and also to bless us in the performance of our duties in the creation of a wise and just world. But what is truly unique is that our first president challenges us to accept the responsibilities and the duties that co-exist with the act of giving thanks. In essence, he encourages us to understand that it’s not enough to simply give thanks. The act of giving thanks requires us to acknowledge our blessings, and in so doing, calls us to recognize our duties to create a peaceful, well-governed world.
When we recognize that the creation of a peaceful, benevolent world is held hostage by poverty, injustice and oppression, we who enjoy such great blessings are called to recognize those among us, who are less fortunate.
When we give thanks for our homes and material comforts, we are challenged to recognize those who are left without. When we give thanks for our families and friends, we call to mind the marginalized and the orphaned. When we give thanks for our freedom, we dutifully acknowledge those who live under the harsh rule of oppression and injustice. Truly, it is in this act of giving thanks that we recognize our responsibility to affect positive change in our world.
I often tell my children that we must create the world that we wish to live in. If we wish to live in a kind world, we must offer genuine kindness to others. If we desire a clean world, we must be willing to clean up the mess, especially when we did not make it. If we wish to live in a merciful world, we must extend our hand to help someone who has fallen, for charity is the truest expression of mercy. If we wish to live in a peaceful world, we must seek out and enable justice for all. For there can be no peace without justice.
Thanksgiving reminds us of our origins…both the origins of our nation and the origins of our humanity. It is in giving thanks that we recognize our humble place in the order of things; that we are the receivers of remarkable blessings and gifts; and that we are grateful for the mercy and kindness of a benevolent maker. And it is in giving thanks that we see clearly the incredible power of our roles as people who have received so much. In giving thanks we are challenged to remind ourselves that our incredible good fortune calls us to become benefactors to a world in great need of our kindness, goodness and mercy. In essence, we learn that with great opportunity comes great responsibility.
In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November 1863:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God…
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union”.
As an American who spends much of his year living and working in a foreign land, I find great warmth and welcome in the invitation of our great President Lincoln to those Americans in every part of our nation, those at sea and those “sojourning in foreign lands” to celebrate this day of Thanksgiving.
On Thanksgiving Day, I, along with my family, will gather with other Americans living here in Costa Rica to celebrate the blessings of the United States. While we eat our turkey and cranberry sauce, we will pray for those with little to eat and will recommit ourselves to caring for the hungry among us. While we embrace our families and friends in celebration, we will remember those who are alone and forgotten, and will open our hearts and our homes to lessen their loneliness. While we engage in spirited discourse about politics and religion, we will recognize those who are silenced by the weight of violence and oppression, and will commit ourselves to helping educate future generations to the blessings of openness and tolerance.
Despite the many miles that separate us from our friends and family in the USA, we will be joined together in celebration of our shared gratitude for the blessings of a great nation. This Thanksgiving, as we sit down to a table filled with food, friendship and freedom, we will give thanks…and then, in gratitude…we will give back.
Patrick Goodness: November 25, 2008