The Roman statesman Cicero once said that, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Gratitude expresses our dependence on others. By its nature, it leads to humility and wisdom, because a grateful heart understands than none of us is really independent. We have obligations to each other. We also have needs from each other. We’re designed to depend on each other as a family; and to depend as a family on God.
Probably no other holiday speaks to the soul of the American experience like Thanksgiving. The origin of Thanksgiving is thoroughly religious. It’s also very specifically Christian. The Protestant Christians who began this tradition nearly 400 years ago practiced their gratitude in the midst of scarcity, disease, high mortality and a harsh new land. Precisely because of their suffering, they understood their own limitations; their radical dependence on God. For the people who started it, Thanksgiving was never about holiday sales, self-satisfied comfort or an annual nod to the generic Life Force. It was a personal conversation with God. At its heart, Thanksgiving has always been about acknowledging our dependence on God, and offering Him our love and gratitude. Obviously, people of any religious faith and no religious faith can have grateful hearts and can take part deeply in the joy of Thanksgiving. But scrubbing God out of the Thanksgiving experience — turning it into yet another secular excuse for consuming more products — leaves two basic questions unanswered: Who exactly are we thanking, and why are we thanking Him?
This year as we gather with family and friends for Thanksgiving dinner, we’d do well to ask ourselves those two questions. Many families in our own country and vast numbers of people around the world lack the food, medical care, clothing, conveniences and material resources most Americans take for granted. We don’t “deserve” our blessings any more than the Third World “deserves” its poverty. We Americans work very hard for our standard of living — but others around the world work just as hard, or even harder, to barely survive. God has blessed the United States with freedoms, opportunities and abundance unknown to most other peoples in history. Those blessings bring along with them responsibilities of charity and justice to others who have less. This is why every Thanksgiving is a call to Christians to recover who we really are: children of God with family duties to each other. Gratitude leads to humility; to seeing our true place in creation. And humility is the beginning of sanity — the clarity of mind to see what’s right, what’s wrong, what needs to be done, and the willingness to do it.
Americans are a generous people. It’s one of our enduring strengths as a nation. But we can lose that generosity if we forget who we are, why we’re here, what we owe to others, and Who made us. May God — who after all is the One we’re thanking — bless each of us and our families this Thanksgiving, and turn our hearts in gratitude to the needs of others.