On October 3, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued a Proclamation, “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.” At that historic time of divisive war, no one was spared from the experience of grief. Everyone lost someone or something - a loved one, their property, their human dignity, or an old way of life.
The Proclamation urges those who would observe Thanksgiving Day to pray for “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife”. Even today, 160 years later, we are among those who need to pray for others, even as we are among those who need to receive the blessing of prayer at this season of thanksgiving, whether we are widows, orphans, or mourners, or those who suffer because of civil strife everywhere around the world. Though it may seem like a paradox of extremes, gratitude and grief are inextricably linked.
For many, this emotion-laden time of the year can feel almost unbearable. As those around us feast and celebrate, we are susceptible to every reminder of the one we love. In the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay, “The presence of that absence is everywhere.” Perhaps a beloved father always carved the turkey and we feel the void of his family leadership. Or an empty chair at the table reminds us of one whose presence will no longer be part of the occasions of our life. Yet even though we grieve, our faith inspires us to be thankful to God for the abundance and bounty of this life that is ours. Whether we have much or little, on Thanksgiving Day we praise God from who all blessings flow.
If our heart is wounded by the neglect or insensitivity of another as we gather together to feast, celebrate, and remember, when we focus on gratitude, we put aside our heartache and hurt. On an autumn Sunday, my heart was simmering with some leftover resentment about who knows what. As I went to church and entered into worship it was simply impossible to sing “blessings all mine and ten thousand beside” and still hang on to my feeling of woundedness. Gratitude has the power to release our heart and cleanse our spirit. Gratitude puts us in a better place, a place that pleases God and honors the memory of our loved one.
As we grieve at Thanksgiving and reflect on the rich heritage that is ours because of our loved one, gratitude is our most spontaneous response. Even when life's circumstances seem hopelessly complicated and relationships are imperfect or flawed, we thank God for the courage to persevere in the certainty that we have “chosen the better part” (Luke 10:38). We give thanks for the gifts endowed to us by the one we love, gifts that inspire and bless our life each day, gifts of their spirit present to us as kindness, gentleness, self-giving, generosity, and faithfulness. We give thanks for the legacy of their devotion and concern for our welfare. We give thanks for their legacy of untiring commitment to our spiritual care and nurture. We give thanks for their legacy of human goodness and unconditional love still at work in the world. We give thanks for their lasting legacy of love that lives on in us and through us forever.
Beyond the momentary seasonal feast, as we grieve at Thanksgiving our heart is hungry for the grace of God that sets us free from the past to live at peace in the present in the fullness of God's goodness and bounty to us. Though grief and gratitude are indeed disparate friends, in each we recognize the abundant blessing of the steadfast love and faithfulness of God. May we offer our thanks and praise to God, even as we grieve and remember - at Thanksgiving and always.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.
Psalm 107:21-22 NRSV