Thanksgiving at 150: “it is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, to give you thanks, Lord”
Mary Jo Iozzio
Each year brings something like a milestone anniversary, in this year and this month I note the Thanksgiving holiday at its 150th anniversary. In the US the day has its mythic roots in the settlers’ harvest festivals and friendships with native peoples. As a national observance it blurs the line between church and state with a consistent reference to, as in President Obama’s 2012 Proclamation, “the God-given bounty that enriches our lives.”
Thanksgiving is an official holiday celebrating religious and civic solidarity and, in light of a market-driven economy, the consumerist start of the Christmas shopping season. By congressional or presidential proclamation a day of thanks has been observed in the US since 1777. However, such a day was not established as an annual national holiday until 3 October 1863, by proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln. That year began with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, continued in witness of the bloodiest of Civil War battles at Gettysburg, PA (1-3 July 1863), and immortalized at the dedication of the battlefield cemetery in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (19 November 1863). It was a year of mixed messages unabashedly including the message that it is right and just to give thanks to Almighty God for the blessings of a just cause, the sacrifices of lives lost for the union, and the harvests in the hearth and fields of the warring nation’s families.
In paradoxical ways, the Emancipation Proclamation was the signal event of 1863 and perhaps even of Lincoln’s presidency. From the start of Lincoln’s election campaign (1860) to his death (15 April 1865), his opposition to slavery, commitment to justice, and desire for national unity figured prominently; although he remained aggrieved over the War Between the States (12 April 1861-9 April 1865), he led the nation to the abolition of slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (passed by Congress 31 January, ratified 6 December 1865) and the end of the war. Raised in the Reformed Christian Church though not “religious”, he read Scripture daily and believed that God was involved in human affairs to guide the government and its people in wisdom and the knowledge of what is right. So sure of God’s favor at work in that act of justice, he never felt more certain that he “was doing right” by signing the Proclamation. The Thanksgiving Proclamation followed months later, inviting the citizenry to observe a day of thanksgiving and praise, to commend the battle weary and war dead to God’s healing hand, and to implore restoration of the Union “as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes.”
This year has no shortage of reasons to give thanks and to remember lives lost to senseless violence. On thanks, among many others: the Emancipation Proclamation itself; the 100 year anniversary on the Civil Rights “March on Washington” and “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the gained momentum (in many quarters) of equal rights for same-sex unions; the renounced papacy of Benedict XVI, setting the precedent for retirement of the Chair at an appropriate time; the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, as Bishop of Rome, taking the name Francis and reminding us that mercy, humility, and compassion are what God asks; an averted international military intervention in Syria through an international day of prayer and fasting (and diplomacy); and a Church reminded of its mission to be the Good News of solidarity. On remembering chaos: persistent threats of a US government shutdown, from the fiscal cliffhanger of January to the closed doors October 1-16; chemical weapons use and near 100,000 mostly civilian deaths in Syria; Boston Marathon bombing; Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi; and coup d’état in Egypt.
As the year comes to an end it is good to ponder blessings received and to pause over sadness encountered: clear skies, the bright colors of autumn, birds on the wing, squirrels gathering nuts, and families about their daily activities. Then I remember some personal gifts –like gentle days with Joes, Mom’s 90th birthday, Norman’s 20th anniversary, a new teaching and research position, the pilgrimage of my life. Although it has been co-opted by market forces and the day can be fraught with high expectations and too much food, the fourth Thursday in November is a fine day to dedicate ourselves anew to thankfulness.
Mary Jo Iozzio is professor of moral theology, teaching social ethics at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry after twenty years at Barry University, Miami Shores, FL. She is series editor of Content and Context in Theological Ethics (Palgrave Macmillan), and past co-editor of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics (2006-2013); principal editor of Calling for Justice throughout the World: Catholic Women Theologians on the HIV/AIDS Pandemic (Continuum, 2008), and editor of Considering Religious Traditions in Bioethics (University of Scranton Press, 1998). She is author of Self-determination and the Moral Act: A Study of the Contributions of Odon Lottin, OSB (Peeters Press, 1995) and Radical Dependence: A Theo-anthropological Ethic in the Key of Disability (University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming). She lives with her husband, Giuseppe D’Amato, her mother Mary Iozzio, and their beagle Maynard in West Roxbury, MA. Mary Jo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.