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Every human being likes to be thanked. Sometimes we even deserve it. God loves being thanked, too — and ALWAYS deserves it. Why is this so?

For one thing, Jesus, the Incarnate Word, frequently begins his prayer with thanksgiving to his Eternal Father. It might be said that he lived in a perpetual state of thankfulness to God. It is the perfect expression of his relationship to the Father. He acknowledged that everything he has comes from the Father, to whom he gives back everything that is given to him. If that does not tell us something about what love is! For God IS love and this self-emptying (kenosis, in Greek) reveals to us much about God and much about us.

When we are at our best — perfectly human — we give. Our identity lies in what we give, how much our focus is on the other, not on ourselves. In fact, the measure of our full humanity is the extent to which we, like Christ, empty ourselves, living by giving.

So, we approach Thanksgiving Day. Why is this a particularly Catholic thing — THE Catholic thing? To be clear. I am not proposing it ONLY as a Catholic thing. In fact, it’s the one national holiday that can be celebrated by anyone, without regard to one’s faith, genetic or biological history, country of origin, politics — or, in other words, pretty “catholic,” in the secular sense of “universal.”

Thanksgiving, however, always requires a subject and an object, an “I” and a “Thou,” a personal entity giving thanks to someone for something. Its center is and moves outside itself. What is particularly catholic about this, as a matter of faith, is that it affirms that I do not create who I am. My actions and achievements may contribute to my story, my history, but my giving thanks acknowledges that whom I thank at least in part, freely helps define who I am.

Maybe I should pause a moment to try to explain what I mean. In no way do I suggest that hard work and creativity in human beings is to be disparaged or diminished. In fact, to do so would almost be sacrilegious! We are all made “in the image and likeness of God.” While this is reflected in so many ways — our desire for relationship, our ability to reason, our joy in admiring beauty, to name just a few — it is uniquely human to be able to compose, craft, design and fashion, using the elements God has given us. We often learn more about who we are by the things we make.

What I am, however, is always more than what I have decided to be or even prefer to be. I do not get to choose my parents, my DNA, my genes, my place and date of birth. We may play games with children about what kind of animal you would like to be, but deciding to “self-identify” as a zebra-striped giraffe or a yellow submarine will not make me so. Science and technology have opened the door to many modifications on biological species but cannot change the species. Without getting too philosophical or technical here, suffice it to say that being human also involves a certain degree of acceptance of my limitations and the parameters of social existence. “No man is an island” is certainly a bit of folk wisdom to abide by. We need others to become ourselves better. And one “Other” without whom we fall apart, as the saints teach us, is the God who knows and loves us into existence, even before we are born.

I say “thank you” to one for something given to me by that one, something to which I am not entitled, which I did not earn and cannot demand. Catholics believe it is God who gives us life, who wills our eternal life, who graces us — grace, by definition, is a gift, a favor — every day, every moment with what we need not only to live, but to thrive. It is no accident that our central act of worship, the Mass, is a celebration of thanksgiving. That is exactly what the name “Eucharist,” derived from the Greek, means. We are, by definition, a “people who give thanks.”

This Thanksgiving can and should be more than just a commemoration of Thanksgivings passed, another opportunity to re-enact old memories. True, we all have our favorite dishes without which Thanksgiving would not be Thanksgiving, yet we all know that it is more than just about the food. I certainly know how everyone — who likes turkey — has the tenderest bird ever with all the wonderful trimmings.

We are aware each year, however, of those who might have been with us last year, or in previous years, who might not be at the table in the place we are gathering: a parent, friend or relative. Sometimes relationships have deteriorated, or job or military position may make one’s presence impossible. We can still remember those deceased, estranged or otherwise distanced from us in prayer.

If we take the opportunity to attend Mass on Thanksgiving Day, which makes so much sense to do, we can actually make connections that the ritual at the eating table cannot. The Mass is a Thanksgiving celebration that spans earth AND heaven. When we celebrate Mass we are united not only with those IN the church itself but all of those are united in Christ, which includes our deceased friends and relatives. The reason is that it is Jesus who connects us since he is this one offering the sacrifice of himself for us: it is Calvary re-presented in the form of a meal.

It is accurate to say we are surrounded by saints and angels who see him in the face. There is only one Jesus and he is present with us at Mass. So, it is perfectly correct to see the Mass as a great Thanksgiving dinner that unites heaven and earth, all the faithful whom we love, living and deceased.

This, of course, is a mystery of faith. It is also true. It is in Christ that “we live and move and have our being.” As you may be aware, I am recuperating from cancer surgery that, by the grace of God, was successful in removing the disease. Because I am following the doctor’s direction, I will not be able to celebrate with my family in Orange County. I know, however, that I will be united with them and all my loved ones who have “gone before us marked with the sign of faith.” At Mass, I will not only pray for them all, but know that they are truly with him and I with them as if we were at the same table. Because in the truest sense, we are. Where Jesus is really present so are all those who call him Lord. Happy Thanksgiving!

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