by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA 2023 Teacher of Peace
Thanksgiving is arguably the best of the civil holidays in the United States. Fortunately, this annual expression of gratitude has managed to avoid the craziness of the economically driven and elongated Christmas season, and so many others that Hallmark cards has used as a cash cow. Thanksgiving requires relatively modest spending and rarely gift-giving.
Also, it has taken on a spiritual tone even for secular United States. The expressions of gratitude on this day border on the religious. For people of faith the day consistently includes expressions of gratitude to God our Creator and Provider. In Catholic circles an almost instinctive desire to attend Mass as a dimension of this holiday has grown exponentially.
We have in our memories an idealized scenario of what the perfect Thanksgiving celebration should be.
The highlight of the week and the day itself is Thanksgiving dinner with all that goes into it: purchases of needed ingredients for the meal, recipes handed down through generations, favorite dishes, the usual roasted turkey, family members traveling distances to be together. It all culminates with the festive gathering to share this ever-so-special occasion: the joy of table fellowship with family and friends.
And while this idyllic picture is, more often than not, incomplete, sometimes due to tragic or
divisive circumstances, the vision “still has its time.”
In any case, we miss the deeper meaning of this annual festive meal if we limit our understanding of it to the deliciousness of the food and the fact that we are together with loved ones. The renown theologian of ordinary, mundane events, Jesuit Karl Rahner, has wonderful thoughts about the human activity of eating. They are totally applicable to our yearly Thanksgiving moment.
“God’s grace is most evident in a common meal when what’s revealed is what it means to be human. That we are not isolated individuals – that we are people who don’t merely live our lives by accident but are called into relationship with one another.
“Whenever we take a meal there should be a festive touch about it. A meal proclaims a unity In which we long to merge our souls and in which each of us will be free from the prison of our own loneliness. Meal as a communal act, a place of realizing what it is to be human.”
Rahner’s thoughts underscore a central Christian conviction: that the Incomprehensible
Mystery we call God became a flesh and blood part of the human experience in Jesus, the
carpenter of Nazareth. And he consistently turned meals into teaching moments:
- At his Mother’s insistence, Jesus’ first public action came at a wedding banquet. (John 2:11)
- He deliberately ate and drank with people considered to be of low esteem. (Luke 15:1-7)
- He accepted invitations to dine even with his adversaries. (Luke 7:26-50)
- He enjoyed a festive meal in his honor five days before his suffering and death. (John 12:1-2)
Culminating these human activities, Jesus chose the sacred Jewish Passover meal as the final
statement of his Divine Incarnation. His words and actions at that Supper were entirely human.
- “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you…” (Luke 22:15)
- “[H]e rose from supper… poured water into a basin and washed his disciples’ feet.”(John 13:4-5)
- “He took bread…said the blessing, broke it and and said: ‘Take it, this is my body.’ He took a cup and gave it to them saying: ‘This is my blood.’” (Mark 14:22-24)
Tellingly, Rahner concludes his reflection on common meals as encounters with grace saying: “It is no accident that our central act as Christians takes place in a meal.”
This has been true from the beginning. The Acts of the Apostles says of the earliest Christian communities: “Every day they devoted themselves to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread… (Eucharist).” (Acts 2:42)
Enjoy a blessed Thanksgiving!
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and the 2023 Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.