These are uncertain times, but have the times ever been certain? For the future comes with no guarantee. But the past can offer guidance, even assurance. One thinks of times in this country's history that were not just uncertain but critical. Yet presidents of the United States paused to proclaim a day of thanksgiving.
The first national proclamation of the holiday was issued in 1863, at a time when the Union itself was in peril, and indeed had already been shredded. A great civil war had engulfed the country, taking its terrible toll. But at the urging of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, Abraham Lincoln directed his secretary of state, William Seward, to draw up a proclamation of thanksgiving.
What could Americans be thankful for in the midst of a bloody war that was sweeping over a once peaceful and hopeful land?
"In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity," the proclamation declared, "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; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union." The beleaguered president gave thanks for bountiful crops and busy industries, and rejoiced in the prospect of ever greater freedom.
In the midst of death and destruction, blessings may loom the larger by contrast.
In many ways, Thanksgiving has become the most expected of American holidays whatever the circumstances. Yet it still seems to come abruptly, in the middle of the week. It has the feeling of a surprise despite its being right there on the calendar all along. In that way, Thanksgiving is like grace itself: We have experienced it in the past, we count on it in the future, and yet there is something miraculous in its arrival.
Today's celebration of Thanksgiving ("Dad, would you say grace?") and the rituals that come with the holidays, the hymns and prayers and community services, the Thanksgiving Day parade and the Football Classics ... all of that would come long after the first national Thanksgiving.
First there had to be the unvoiced instinct, the beginning of the realization of what precious things we have been given. That stirring within is what remains fresh and untouched, and keeps coming back in the middle of history, in the middle of our lives, at midpoints like airports and bus stations, and out on the road heading to the old home place in the middle of a long cold night. We glance up at the stars in their courses, and shiver with gratitude for all these gifts that in the end are one gift: life itself.
Let us give thanks today for all those who make the holiday possible for the rest of us:
For the armed forces of the United States that guard us in our sleep, even as we fail to notice. Think of Thanksgiving a year ago and the dispatches from Anbar and Baghdad. Iraq was collapsing, and serious statesmen pronounced that all was lost. We think of how much has changed in a year, and give thanks for the valor and skill of our soldiers. sailors, airmen, Marines, all the branches ... for their endurance, initiative and unwavering devotion to us and to victory.
We think of the struggles that still lie ahead in this conscienceless war of terror that has been launched against us. And are thankful for the strength to face it united.
Let us give thanks for the hours leading up to Thanksgiving. For the festive anticipation as folks come home for the holiday. For the sweetest two words in the language amid every crowd at an airport or bus station or railroad depot: Welcome Home!
For the sound of gravel in the drive of many a country place as the old folks await the arrival of the car bearing familiar faces. And maybe some new ones. For the sound of doors opening and children shouting. For coats tossed on the furniture and the feel of warm hugs. For the old folks at home and new babies in the family.
For the bustle before the guests arrive, the hubbub of greetings when they do, for the same stories improved on every year, and for the arguments over just exactly when something occurred in the family and why. For the ways in which all families are alike and all families different.
For friends who make life sweet, who share the good times and bad, and who, because they stick by us despite ourselves, teach us grace.
For the presence of the past around the table in the faces of the old, in family stories, in old recipes, in the voices of those who taught us the lay of the land. None of it is past, for the past is what we are.
Let us not fail to give thanks for the Groaning Board the turkey and dressing, the cranberry sauce and yams, and for pies pumpkin, of course, and mincemeat and Karo-nut and, in some quarters, sweet potato. And for good appetites.
Thank you, Lord, for moments of grace that bring us back to ourselves, and to what's important.
Let us give thanks for the wandering as much as the arriving. For long drives through the night-turning-dawn at the end of the road.
For the sound of the Pledge of Allegiance being said in a chorus of childhood voices, for the same words said in every accent at a citizenship ceremony, and for that ridiculous yet undying hope: liberty and justice for all.
For baseball and jazz and the Constitution and American intricacies of every kind that are nevertheless simple, and so endure. For the great, sweeping American simplicities like Emily Dickinson's poems and Joe DiMaggio at bat.
For freedom, whatever the cost. For security in an insecure world, and the strength to fight for it. For the peace we yet envision. And seek. Amen.