In the midst of a civil war and a mere six weeks before his address at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation on October 3, 1863 formally designating a national day of Thanksgiving for all Americans:
“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…”
As Thanksgiving Day approaches here in the United States it is good to recall, as Catholics, that we are all pilgrims, sojourners in exile, journeying toward heaven. While we thank God for the gifts and blessings we have and experience temporally, our gaze remains always fixed on Our Lord and the beatific vision.
This holiday season my thoughts turn to Saint Peter’s admonition to all christians living in a hostile world:
“Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:11-17)
Finally, we recall that our days must be ordered so that it is God who is always given priority. Call to mind Saint Paul’s lesson to the Galatians:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
Recently Taylor Marshall discussed the first Thanksgiving celebrated in America. It did not involve puritanical Calvinists fleeing anti-Catholic England in the early seventeenth century, but rather Catholic spaniards arriving in Florida fifty six years earlier. The story of their first actions upon arrival serve to remind us of the ultimate prayer of Thanksgiving offered to God:
“The first American Thanksgiving was actually celebrated on September 8 (feast of the birth of the Blessed Virgin) in 1565 in St. Augustine, Florida. The Native Americans and Spanish settlers held a feast and the Holy Mass was offered. This was 56 years before the Puritan pilgrims of Massachusetts. Don Pedro Menendez came ashore amid the sounding of trumpets, artillery salutes and the firing of cannons to claim the land for King Philip II and Spain. The ship chaplain Fr. Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales chanted the Te Deum and presented a crucifix that Menendez ceremoniously kissed. Then the 500 soldiers, 200 sailors and 100 families and artisans, along with the Timucuan Indians celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in gratitude to God.”
As we gather with family and friends this year to celebrate Thanksgiving, may we remember that we are all sojourners in exile and that our true home is heaven.
Originally Published on November 26, 2014.