As the news that 129 people had been gunned down in Paris reached the States last Friday, many of us surely heard an echo of 9/11 and remembered how we felt when terrorism first came to our shores. A theatre critic for the Tribune wrote in Monday’s paper how difficult it was for him to sit in the theatre Friday night and objectively review a play about an historical incident that in the context of the news from France seemed so trivial. Of course, even in the best of times there is always a layer of darkness around us. There are always things to lament. The point is that people of faith, while naming the darkness for what it is, try to keep our eyes focused on the light. This is worth keeping in mind as we head toward our family’s celebration of Thanksgiving. No matter what is going on in our life or in our world, we still have reasons to be grateful. St. Paul could not be more direct: “In all circumstances, give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes. 5:18).
Of all the years in our nation’s history when there seemed to be little reason to pause and give thanks it would be 1863. The United States was divided by Civil War. 500,000 Americans would die in that war, the greatest number of casualties of any conflict in our history. In some cases, brother was fighting against brother. This was not just a war, but a struggle over our very identity as a single nation and about the values and practices that we were willing to tolerate. Some of the wounds from this war and from what followed the war have yet to be healed. Yet it was in 1863, in the midst of this War Between the States, that President Lincoln boldly proclaimed the national observance of Thanksgiving. It might do us all good to reflect on his words from October 3, 1863, especially if we are not really in the mood for Thanksgiving this year.
“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship, the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that been made in the camp, the siege and the battlefield; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, that do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife with which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”