In 1863, Abraham Lincoln expressed that: “The country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
In gratitude for God’s great gifts, Lincoln proclaimed the “last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Lincoln’s “day of Thanksgiving and Praise” to “the Most High God” and “beneficent Father” set the precedent for the uniquely American holiday of Thanksgiving. There was no attempt in his time to banish God from society or the world, as most knew well in faith that God is the source of all that is good. There was no false interpretation of the separation of church and state as Lincoln called on the entire nation to praise and thank God.
In the midst of the cultural desert in which we find ourselves, as Thanksgiving approaches, we, like Lincoln, should rejoice in the freedoms we still enjoy, even in the midst of the present attacks on religious freedom. We can thank God for the “strength and vigor” of our families and our Church and pray that our nation return to her roots. Thanksgiving is the appropriate time to recognize how much the Lord has given us.
In some ways, it seems harder in contemporary culture to recognize the providential gifts of God. Our consumptive culture has ensured that few of us know hunger or real poverty. Those without work have felt the sting of true need, but in the United States our grocery stores are full and we are rarely touched by the great chaos, want and disorder that many of Lincoln’s contemporaries experienced, or others experience throughout the present-day world.
In fact, too many of us suffer from a kind of overabundance. Immediate access to much of what we desire leads us to forget that God is the true provider of our safety, stability, health—and our salvation.
It is hard to be thankful when we don’t know what it is to go without.
The remedy for ingratitude is sacrifice. We are most grateful for what we receive when we consider what we truly deserve. When we are aware of our sinfulness and our need for God’s mercy, we are ever more grateful for his love for us and his forgiveness of our sins.
In 1863, Lincoln understood this. In his Thanksgiving Proclamation, Lincoln recommended that all Americans offer “humble penitence for our … perverseness and disobedience.” He recognized that in order for a just society to exist, it would need humility to seek the forgiveness of God.
This is also the recommendation of our Church. In fact, it is the expectation that all Catholics will offer regular penance and acts of sacrifice. Penance allows us to know Christ more closely, to remember our sinfulness, and most importantly, to remember God’s love for us.
The Church recommends that each week on Fridays Catholics abstain from meat, or from some other good thing, in order to remember our sinfulness and the mercy of God. In the United States, no one is required to abstain from meat outside of Lent. But each of us is required to make a sacrifice. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states that: “In memory of Christ’s suffering and death, the Church prescribes making each Friday throughout the year a penitential day. All of us are urged to prepare appropriately for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday.”
Few of us remember to prepare for God’s mercy by remembering his sacrifice and our sinfulness. But we should. We should joyfully offer sacrifices in order to know the love of God. We should offer penance in order to experience mercy. We should consider the practice of fasting, because it enriches our practice of feasting each Sunday
On Thursday, I pray that you will feast in thanksgiving to God for the great things he has done for each of us. But on Friday, I pray that you will fast, or offer some real sacrifice, so that you may prepare for the true, heavenly feast that the Lord offers.