November 21, 2023 at 9:01 a.m.

Remembering why

As we share — if we are so fortunate as to share! — our Thanksgiving meal, remember why we are here.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

As we were celebrating the Rite of Holy Orders last weekend, I was struck by the coincidences — the synchronicity, one might say, in the contemporary usage — of its language and theology with the Rite of Confirmation: the radiant joy of the Holy Spirit dawning in our hearts as we remember the ineluctable presence of God. That the rites would reflect one another should not surprise us: the same sanctifying Holy Spirit hovering over the heart, the same Holy Spirit — the love between the Father and the Son — in-dwelling our hearts and souls, the same love that unites us in the Communion of Saints. What we celebrate at Mass each day!

Yes, the entire sacramental life of the Church is a celebration of the mystery of God’s presence in all our lives and in all we do. Heaven and earth are mystically united in the eternal prayer of Jesus to the heavenly Father in the Holy Spirit, in which we are caught up when we take the time — or say “Amen” to God’s time lifting us up — in the action we call prayer.

I admit that this way of thinking may sound “up in the clouds,” but the essence of prayer is that heaven is more real than we imagine. Heaven comes to us and brings to our earthly life a vision of what reality truly is. We may not always see things as they are because our sight is dimmed by our sins, or the sins of others, that cloud our vision. So much of life seems, at times, to be just “going through the motions” without realizing what is truly happening. What we call “the Holidays” these days is but one example — but a good one.

We are at the eve of Advent, that time of year in which our Christian faith invites us to stop what we are doing and to listen. Nature itself seems to be slowing down, going into a slumber. Many animals must begin their wintering or hibernation. Yes, the squirrels and other gatherers are in a frenzy, instinctively aware that their food supply must be stashed quickly if they are to weather the season. All signs point, however, to slowing down. Advent is far from a denial of nature, but an invitation to awaken to the human condition and that the awakening we need is how lost we are. We need a Savior!

Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to pause and to come to our senses. Unlike “The Holidays,” it is generally not an occasion in which we need to do much more than just to show up. Not that this is an easy affair! At no time of year does travel take longer, involve more crowds or cause more anxiety. I recall in my days of postgraduate studies, leaving Catholic University about seven o’clock in the morning, thinking I had an early start, only to spend the entire day on I-95, as I trekked my way back to Brooklyn. A drive I could usually do in four hours turned out to take nine. Oh, the “work” of preparing to celebrate!

Not that so many others were not preparing for the festivities in similar ways. A day or two ago, in the supermarket, I felt so sorry for a mom and her daughter looking for a food item that seemed to be sold out already. It might have been turkey broth. I was going to make risotto for a gathering of priest friends and chicken bone broth was just fine. The work of so many laboring in the kitchen to put the meal together for family and friends — including pot-luckers who pitch in a dish and the dear friends who bring the wine or cannoli — are feats themselves worthy of our thanks. Not a bad place to start as we make our first lists in this season of lists, of the persons for whom we give thanks.

Indeed, as nature is telling us to slow down, and our Advent faith invites us to pause and listen, a certain fear of the silence — the truth that it might reveal to us? — seems to drive us into yet more activity. The beauty of the gift of Thanksgiving is that, of all “The Holidays” it is one on which, once the meal is readied, we need to do little more than to ravish it, to enjoy it and, hopefully, the good company of those with whom we are sharing it. At the same time, we naturally will be remembering those no longer with us in the same way, with whom even last year or in years past we celebrated this beautiful day.

At our family celebration, we have developed a custom of bringing little reminders of friends and family members who, as we say in our religious tradition, “have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.” As we pray at the beginning of our repast, we are reminded of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ to us in the Eucharist and throughout our lives as the Mass which never really ends sends us into the world God so loves to announce that Good News, the Gospel of Eternal Life, which God desires for all humanity. Something about Thanksgiving Day makes it more than just one of those “things we just do” without thinking. We must remember why. Everything about it calls us to take a moment before we dig in, to be aware of who and where we are. Yes, the moment of prayer reminds us that reality is much deeper and broader than what we often are aware of as we are going through what we call “life.” Life is much more than what we see or feel at any moment. We are surrounded by grace, caught up in a Love that embraces us all and invites us into God’s time, Reality itself.

Thanksgiving, of course, is what we do every day in the sacramental life of the Church. Eucharist itself means “thanksgiving.” We remember at every Mass that Jesus himself, the Incarnate Word of God, paused on the night before he died to share a meal with his closest disciples. It was in that meal that much more than food for the body was to be given. Identifying his very self — human and divine — with that action, our Lord and Savior would be giving his disciples, at that moment and for all time, everything that he is and all that he does. He would invest his life, death and resurrection into that action, uniting heaven and earth, giving us for all time the gift of his Presence.

We are not alone! We are caught up in a reality much greater and more wonderful than anything we can imagine in any time or place. It is good that as we share — if we are so fortunate as to share! — our Thanksgiving meal, we remember why we are here. We remember not only our friends and relatives who are not with us, but those who may not have a way at the moment to know they are in our thoughts and prayers, that they are loved. This might include those with whom, at the moment, we are not on “good terms.”

One of the real agonies at Thanksgiving time and during “The Holidays” is the longing to be reunited, or at least at peace, with those from whom we are alienated. It is the hope that in some way our memories might focus less on “who started it” than on who we are and are called to be. I have often counseled, as I have reminded myself, to imagine such persons redeemed. This may well be beyond our human abilities. Another reason we all need a Savior. We cannot save a single person, not even ourselves. We can, nonetheless, pray for everyone and anyone and a good place to start is to pray for all who are lost or have strayed — and entrust them into the hands of God, relieving ourselves of carrying them alone.

At the eve of Thanksgiving, our best way to prepare for the “The Holidays” is to listen to what God and God’s creation are saying to us. The true Light that comes into the world can best be seen when it is allowed to crack through the noisy shell of our routine, complacency and self-righteousness. Even our customary rituals and songs invite us to notice the lights and listen to gentle ringing sounds amid this dark season: candles on the trees, sleigh bells in the snow, chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Many graces are pouring over us: to give ourselves and our loved ones permission to enter into the true spirit of the season, the Advent or “coming again” of God’s Presence into our lives. We can start with a prayerful Thanksgiving gathering, wherever it may be, and a firm purpose of making next Sunday, the First of Advent, a really new beginning for us all as we enter the new liturgical year. In my prayer I will be uniting with all of you and your loved ones in remembering why we are here in this time and in this place to celebrate the glory of God’s redeeming love and hope for us all that this Gospel is all about. 

 @AlbanyDiocese


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