The Great Dividing Line

(Homily for Thanksgiving Day)

Bottom line: Common memory and community narrative form our national identity; something similar happens with faith. We express our faith most profoundly by gratitude - the great dividing line in humanity

All of us have seen school children enact the first Thanksgiving. At my former parish school, we had a rich ethnic diversity, so no one was surprised that a Filipino boy played Myles Standish and a boy, whose parents were Vietnamese refugees, played Squanto. Among the Pilgrims and Natives were children of Asian, Hispanic and European descent. Very few - if any -could trace their ancestry back to that first Thanksgiving. Yet in more profound sense, they were all there. Because we belong to this American nation, the Thanksgiving story is yours and mine.

When you think about it, a Thanksgiving play does more than provide entertainment. It creates a common memory. It places us in a community narrative. A common memory and a community narrative form us into a people. We share a history; we are Americans.

Something similar - but even more profound - happens with faith. The Jewish theologian, David Novak, spoke about the deeper meaning of faith. "Faith," says Rabbi Novak, "is not so much a leap from the rational into the super-rational as it is one's acceptance of a community narrative by including oneself within the narrating community."*

When we attend Mass, we participate in our community narrative. The celebrant says, "The day before he suffered, he took bread..." He concludes with these words of Jesus, "Do this in memory of me."

Now, what happens at Mass is much more than simply recalling a past event. Rather, God lifts us up so that we participate in His memory. For him every moment is "now." At the Mass we stand at the foot of the cross. The blood of Christ comes upon us.

Early Christians called the Mass "Eucharist" - a Greek word that means to give thanks. We express gratitude to the Father for what he has done for us in Christ. Thanksgiving is at the heart of our faith - not just as Catholics, but all Christians. Christians founded our country; they knew that the most important thing we can do is to express gratitude. To whom? To the One who gives us everything.

I am convinced that the great dividing line in humanity is not between rich and poor or old and young. The dividing line is between those who are grateful and those who are not. Consider two extreme examples:

First, Howard Hughes: He was one of the richest men who ever lived. You would think he had every reason to be happy. But he looked at life not as a gift, but as something to be controlled. He began to mistrust everyone and he developed a morbid fear of germs that caused him to isolate himself from everyone. Even though he possessed great wealth, Howard Hughes died alone and miserable.

An opposite example is the Russian novelist, Feodor Dostoevsky. As a young intellectual in Petersburg, he was arrested and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. He went from comfort to terrible suffering. Life as a convict was so dehumanizing that he considered giving up in despair. One day Dostoevsky and the other convicts were walking in chains through the streets of Omsk. A girl ran up to him. “Poor unfortunate man,” she said, “in the name of Christ, take this.” And she place in his hand a kopek - a small coin, one hundredth of a ruble. Dostoevsky treasured that kopek. It gave him strength. His gratitude to that girl grew into gratitude to God. Dostoevsky went on to write what - to my mind - are the greatest novels: Crime and Punishment - and The Brothers Karamazov.

Thanksgiving for even the smallest thing can transform a person's life. Yet so few people are truly grateful. The percent today is about the same as in Jesus' time - one in ten. Jesus praised the Samaritan because he returned to give thanks.

On this Thanksgiving Day, God wants us to express gratitude for small gifts - and for the greatest gift of all: our salvation. Like the grateful leper in today's Gospel we too can hear those beautiful words, "Stand up and go; your faith has saved you."


*Quoted by Richard Garnett in his review of Novak's book In Defense of Religious Liberty, First Things, December 2009

General Intercessions (Prayers of the Faithful) for Thanksgiving Day Mass

From Archives (Thanksgiving Day Homilies):

Without Gratitude
The Fundamental Freedom - Freedom of Religion
Great Dividing Line
The Power of Gratitude
Thanksgiving and Salvation
Howard Hughes vs. Dostoevsky
The Radical Virtue
Thanksgiving Day 1988

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