Homily preached at St Benedict Catholic Church, Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 2017.
Often when we think of Thanksgiving, we think of Puritan pilgrims and native Americans eating a meal together. However, the real roots of thanksgiving are actually very Catholic.
When the first Spanish settlers landed in what is now St. Augustine on September 8, 1565, to build a settlement, their first act was to have their Chaplain offer the Mass to thank God for the safe arrival of the Spanish fleet… After the Mass, Father Francisco Lopez, the Chaplain of the Spanish ships and the first pastor of St. Augustine, stipulated that the natives from the Timucua tribe be fed along with the Spanish settlers, including Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the leader of the expedition. It was the very first Thanksgiving and the first Thanksgiving meal in the United States.
The event which is often described as the first thanksgiving took place in 1621, fifty six years later. There is another Catholic element to this later thanksgiving meal: Squanto, the beloved hero of Thanksgiving (another article here), was the Native American man who mediated between the Puritan Pilgrims and the Native Americans. Squanto had been enslaved by the English but he was freed by Spanish Franciscans. Squanto thus received baptism and became a Catholic. So it was a baptized Catholic Native American who orchestrated what became known as Thanksgiving. (Thank you Taylor Marshall, for a lot of this information!)
What can we learn from the real first Thanksgiving in San Augustine?
One element is the very fact that this group gathered together in prayer. Deep within the human heart is a desire for a relationship with others, and a desire to live a spirit of gratitude together, going to God. The first Thanksgiving included people from a variety of walks of life. As members of the mystical body of Christ, we experience this communion very deeply and profoundly. We should constantly thank God for our families, no matter how broken, our friends, those we share our days with. The more difficult our situation, the more God is asking us to pray for those around us! We should really go to the Saints in Heaven to become friends with them, and constantly seek their intercession. They want to help us get to God, and we can see this in a great quote from Saint Therese: “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth”. We should always be praying for the souls in purgatory. Even if there is nobody with whom you will physically spend your thanksgiving, remember we are always together in Christ!
A second element is that they had a deep desire to be present at the holy Mass. Thanksgiving to God is a central aspect of the Catholic Faith. The word “Eucharist” is from the Greek word Eucharistein, meaning to give thanks. The Catechism notes “The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, a blessing by which the Church expresses her gratitude to God for all his benefits, for all that he has accomplished through creation, redemption, and sanctification. Eucharist means first of all “thanksgiving”(1360). The Spanish settlers understood this, and thus their thanksgiving was rooted in the holy Eucharist. First Mass, then a festive meal. If you or I do nothing else today, we can say we have truly celebrated Thanksgiving. The Lord is present to us everyday in the Mass, and we can have thanksgiving everyday, especially in coming to Mass throughout the week and spending some extra time after Mass in quiet prayer thanking our Lord.
A third element is that they celebrated the first Thanksgiving on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We should always remain close to her, praying the rosary everyday, praying the Angelus at some point during the day, and having great love for our Mother. Our Lord is constantly giving us graces, protecting us, sending an angel to help us, listening to the prayers of our brothers and sisters in His Mystical body. So many graces, and so many for which we don’t really know about-and won’t-until we die. We can ask our Blessed Mother to help thank our Lord for all these blessings.
Prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary after Mass:
Mary, most holy virgin and mother, look down upon me! I have no received your most dear Son. You conceived Him in your immaculate womb; you gave birth to him, and nursed him, and enfolded him with most loving embraces. Humbly and with love I now present to you anew this Son of yours. His very appearance brought you joy and filled you with all delight. I offer him to you; that you may hold him again in your arms and love him with all your heart. I do this as an act of worship of the most holy Trinity, and I offer him for your honor and glory, that through him my needs and those of the whole world may be fulfilled. I ask you dear mother, to obtain for me forgiveness of all my sins, the grace of serving Jesus most faithfully from now on, and the gift of final perseverance, so that with you I may praise him forever. amen.