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 grief. Everyone lost someone or something - a loved one, property, 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, over 150 years later, we are among those who need prayer at this season of thanksgiving - we who are widows, orphans, mourners, and those who suffer in civil strife everywhere. And 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 seem almost unbearable. As those around us celebrate, we’re painfully aware of the absence of the one we love and now grieve. Perhaps a beloved father always carved the turkey and we feel the void of his faithful family leadership. Or an empty seat at the table reminds us of one whose presence will no longer be part of the occasions of our life. Yet even as we grieve, our faith urges us to be thankful to God for every bounty of life. We give thanks for the one now lost to us in death and the lasting legacy of their love that lives on forever.
As we gather together to feast and remember, if our heart is wounded by the neglect or insensitivity of another, we master our momentary pain when we focus instead on gratitude. This happened to me recently. One Sunday I felt my heart 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 hurt. 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.
When we grieve at Thanksgiving, our gratitude is spontaneous as we reflect on the rich heritage that is ours because of the one we love and now grieve. We give thanks for their lifelong devotion to our welfare. We give thanks for the gifts of their spirit that inspire and bless our lives each day – kindness, gentleness, self-giving, generosity, faithfulness. We give thanks for their untiring commitment to our spiritual care and nurture. We give thanks for their example of human goodness and unconditional love.
As we remember the past with praise and thanksgiving, we understand more clearly that when we invest ourselves in others, we endow the future. Even if relationships are imperfect or flawed, we thank God for courage and perseverance in the certainty that we have “chosen the better part” (Luke 10:38 NRSV), especially when life’s circumstances seem hopelessly complicated.
If our heart is hungry for God’s grace as we grieve at Thanksgiving, we discern the redeeming gifts of life well beyond the feast for which we are truly thankful. This is the grace that sets us free from the past to live at peace in God’s fullness of joy. Gratitude and grief, though disparate friends, are blessed by the steadfast love and faithfulness of God as we give thanks and remember, today 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