Roger Williams, in 1636, purchased land from the Narragansett Indians, and established a settlement near the site of a fresh water spring adjacent to present-day North Main Street in Providence, R.I. He named the new settlement in honor of God’s providential care in providing fresh water for himself and his followers. In order to thank God for his providential bounty, Williams saw to it that the new settlement of Providence became a shelter for the persecuted of all religions, a haven for all people in distress, and one of the first governments in the world with complete religious freedom.
Historians tell us that shortly before Roger Williams purchased land for his new settlement of Providence, Plymouth Colony in the North and Virginia Colony in the South were beginning the first American celebrations of Thanksgiving Day. Since the time of the first colonial thanksgiving, around the year 1621, various presidents and several different Congresses set aside various days for national thanksgiving to God for the bountiful harvests and for the gift of liberty. However, it was not until 1941, over 300 years later, that Congress made the fourth Thursday of November the official Thanksgiving Day for the nation.
Few nations in the world enjoy the good life in a context of self-determination and free speech on the scale found here in the United States. Families gather at the Thanksgiving meal for nurture, friendship, love, companionship, and peace making. Sharing a meal together can be a time of grateful remembering, of gratitude for life’s gifts and blessings, and a time to express appreciation for the significant people in our lives, God’s angels in disguise. How sad if we take for granted the ones we should love the most.
God reminded Abraham, “I have blessed you…so that you will be a blessing.” (Gen. 12.2) Jesus put it a little differently, “The gift you have received, give as a gift.” (Mt. 10.8) Referring to the faithful steward, Jesus reminds us, “To whom much has been given, much will be expected.” (Lk. 12.48)
In every recorded prayer of Jesus Christ, gratitude to God takes center place. Gratitude is about the only gift a human being can give God, who has everything. God responds negatively to selfishness and ingratitude. Self-giving love not only says thank you, but also acts grateful by doing something for a needy person or family.
The day after Thanksgiving stands as the busiest shopping day of the year. The Christian Christmas and the Jewish Hanukkah (the Festival of Lights) celebrate the life of the spirit. The Christmas-Hanukkah season may begin in the marketplace, but hopefully it will end in church or temple. The great French Jesuit, visionary, paleontologist, biologist, and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, reminds us, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Not only the Bible but also other literature applauds gratitude and condemns ingratitude. Shakespeare champions the grateful heart, but sharply censures ingratitude, pointing out that a thankless heart causes special hurt in the area of feelings and human relations: “Blow, blow thou winter wind, thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude…Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky, thou dost not bite so nigh as benefits forgot.” –As You Like It.
In the spirit of Christmas and Hanukkah, may the weeks of December be filled with acts of love and with prayers of thanksgiving for the gifts of loving relationships, peace, and the privilege of living in the most bountiful and diverse country in the world.