Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for Thanksgiving Day

November 25, 2021
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Sirach 50:22-24
Psalm 145:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9, 10-11
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Luke 17:11-19

Amidst the violence and destruction of the American Civil War in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation establishing Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday. He wrote, “No human counsel hath devised nor any mortal hand worked out these great blessings. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

He continued, “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged with one heart and voice by the whole American People…that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to God for singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation.”

This inherent connection between gratitude and repentance is often overlooked when it comes to the celebration of this civic holiday. Yet, when we consider the story of the ten lepers from our Gospel reading today, we can understand how gratitude for God’s mercy and repentance for our sins are inherently united. All ten lepers were healed and made whole, but only the Samaritan, the sole leper not a member of any of the Jewish tribes returns to thank Jesus for his healing. Jesus asks the question to which all who are present know the answer, “Were not all ten made whole?” Only the Samaritan is grateful because he knows that he doesn’t fit into the religious system of the Temple because he is not a Jew. This fact in evidence assists his spiritual recognition that he is a recipient of grace — it is Jesus who has made him whole and freed him not only from exclusion and sickness but even more so from sin. He is able with his grateful heart to recognize the Divinity of Jesus and the initiation of the Kingdom of God that is not of this world. In his gratitude, he returns to Jesus in conversion and repentance for his sin so strictly identified with his leprosy from which he has been set free and made whole.

It is this same graced disposition of gratitude and repentance that enabled Saint Paul to proclaim in his first Epistle to the Corinthians the words we have just proclaimed, “I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, that in him you were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge, as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you, so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The other lepers, who do fit into the system, albeit uncomfortably at this time because of their leprosy, are not grateful. They take for granted their healing as simply another functional ritual involving the corrupt leadership of the Temple that will make them fit in as insiders of a system once again. Their awareness of God and ability to recognize the promised Christ in Jesus has been voided by the blindness of their sin and an unwillingness even to recognize sin and the need for repentance.

The nine lepers and the corrupt leaders had misrepresented the Covenant to be merely a contract. The Covenant was sacred because it was initiated by God. The Covenant involved two unequal partners with binding obligations between God and Israel. A contract places its focus on a transactional exchange between equals. Contract does not promise and cannot deliver a transformative communion. Covenant makes that promise and fulfills that promise through offering and reception and not through claiming and entitlement for self-interest.

Gratitude and repentance are the fruits of belonging expressed through the Covenant. They are gifts that can only come to fruition with relationship with God as the central focus of one’s life. Gratitude is like love in that it is better expressed by deeds than by words. Gratitude does not demand reciprocity, rather, it calls forth imitation.

The Eucharist is the New and Eternal Covenant. It is the Sacrament of belonging because it is an encounter with Christ on the terms set by Christ, it is the gift of thanksgiving for thanksgiving. Those refusing to be made whole and who mistreat the Eucharist as a contract for fitting into an elite club are like the nine lepers in our story. They ignore the loving obligations of Communion marked by acts of gratitude and ongoing conversion and repentance and their words ring hollow and call for their conversion. As the Dominican theologian, Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia once wrote, “Christ’s is the perfect sacrifice of thanksgiving re-enacted every day in the Eucharistic sacrifice recalling His passion, death, and Resurrection. Christ’s perfect sacrifice of thanksgiving gives meaning and substance to our own acts of thanksgiving which, without Him, would always fall short.”

In his proclamation making Thanksgiving Day a national holiday, Abraham Lincoln called on the nation to recognize God’s proper and central place, restoring the covenantal nature of our nation’s founding that had been reduced to merely a social contract among self-interested equals. He was calling on citizens of a nation wounded by civil war and slavery to belong first to God, secondly to humanity, and third to belong to the United States of America — a sense of belonging fostered through gratitude and repentance for sins. We come to this Mass today amidst much civil strife with many people made orphans, widows, mourners, and sufferers with our own contemporary brands of perversity that require repentance. We live amidst ideological chaos and perversity at odds with Christ and His Church and at odds with our true national identity as one republic under God, known and worshipped by many different religions but the same one God, and at odds with our true human nature as created and designed in His image and likeness by the same one God. We hear the voices of those who would rather that we ignore God and fit into a tribe of our own making instead of belonging to God and to a free nation in need of repentance yet grateful for so many blessings and aware that by God’s love and merciful Providence we have been made whole.

The Lord asks again in the readings and prayers of this Liturgy, “Were not all ten made whole?” As imitators of the one Samaritan leper, we come together to celebrate and to receive the Eucharist that transforms us and makes us whole, that engenders gratitude within our hearts, that heals us and sends us forth as foreigners to the contracted state of simply fitting in and with the responsibilities of citizenship, belonging as Americans and belonging as Catholics to God and to each other and to God’s Kingdom established by Christ, cherishing in our hearts His words spoken to us today, “Stand up and go, your faith has saved you.”

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