Thanksgiving: A Day of Forgiveness and Mercy
In just about seven days from now, families and friends throughout America will gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving. It's a day when the traditional Thanksgiving Day meal of turkey, stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie and apple pie takes center stage. I don't think anyone can imagine Thanksgiving Day without turkey, right? But what if YOUR turkey received a pardon that saved it from the butcher's block? Would you be happy? Would you forgive the person who granted the pardon for ruining your Thanksgiving tradition of a turkey dinner?
An annual Thanksgiving tradition is the presidential pardon of a turkey. While its origin is unknown, one explanation is that the custom started with Abraham Lincoln, who granted a pardon to his son's pet turkey. Whatever its origins, the pardon obviously grants the turkey release from becoming someone's Thanksgiving dinner.
As lighthearted as this tradition may be, it does point to a side of Thanksgiving we might want to reflect on. Thanksgving, mercy and forgiveness are part of the same picture. One who is pardoned should most obviously be grateful for the mercy shown him or her. At the same time, one who is grateful should spontaneously express that gratitude in thanksgiving...and in forgiveness. As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving next week, we should remember not only how many blessings God has so freely and lovingly bestowed on us, but also consider how we might better express that gratitude in forgiveness...by forgiving and showing mercy to others.
The Gospel story of the Ten Lepers (Luke 17:11-19) is the usual one we associate with giving thanks and it is for that reason we use it in the Divine Liturgy for Thanksgiving Day. Jesus cures ten lepers of their horrible affliction and only one, a foreigner at that, returns to thank the Lord for His goodness. The other nine go their way without any visible signs of gratitude. We wonder how they could be so callous as to not show gratitude for the gift given to them.
Ingratitude is even more clearly revealed in another Gosepl passage, which is also a good reflection for Thanksgiving, and which we use at Matins for Thanskgiving Day. It is the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-25). Here Jesus tells the story of a gracious King who decided to settle accounts with his servants. One owed such an incredible amount that he had no way to pay it. He pleaded with the King to give him a chance to repay the debt. The King, with tremendous compassion, completely pardoned the servant and set him free without any further expectations. However, instead of manifesting his gratitude by being more understanding and forgiving toward others, the servant did the opposite. Immediately upon leaving the King, he met a fellow servant who owed him a pittance compared to the debt that was forgiven him. Instead of recalling the King's mercy in gratitude, he began to choke his fellow servant and had him put in jail until he repaid the debt. The unforgiving servant's ingratitude is even more incredulous than the nine lepers and leaves us wondering how anyone could be so mean and cruel.
Forgiveness is not something easily carried out or accomplished. When we have been hurt, it is quite natural to want to retaliate and strike back, to get revenge and exact a pound (or more) of flesh from the one who hurt or wronged us. However, such behavior and actions never produce any fruitful or beneficial results. In fact, they only hurt us more in the long run. When we take a step back and truly reflect on things without being emotional or angry, we find that it is easier to forgive when we realize that we ourselves have been forgiven, probably many times, in our lives by those whom we have wronged or hurt. The compassion and mercy shown to us at those times should prompt us, out of gratitude, to deal with others in the same compassionate and merciful way. Only the forgiveness manifested on the Cross of Christ makes this possible. Whatever forgiveness we may extend to others is minute next to God's forgiveness of us.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that has lost the understanding and, in many instances, the capacity to forgive. In an effort to deny the reality of evil and sin, our society seems to tolerate much but forgives little. This is easily seen in the public denial of basic moral principles, such as the permanency of marriage and right to life, but, at the same time, the media's sensationalizing of human failures in soap opera fashion.
The national pardon of a turkey is easily accepted. Other pardons, such as the commutation of the death penalty or clemancy toward an immigrant or the forbearance of a debt owed to us might be much less tolerated. While we must always vehemently condemn sin, gratitude should prompt us to be merciful toward the sinner. While we must always uphold justice in its highest form, gratitude should prompt us to have and show mercy and clemency to others.
The British jurist, William Blackstone, extolled the ability of a monarch to freely use pardon, as such clemancy modified the demands of the harsh application of a general law. Knowing the limitations of human nature, we are indeed grateful to live in a democracy where the power of such means of pardon is limited. However, we are all the more grateful to be part of the Kingdom of God, who is the Supreme Monarch, as His very nature is to love and bestow mercy. God gave His Only-begotten Son who gave His life, condemned as a criminal on the Cross, so that we might have life.
Our society has not only lost the understanding of the reality of evil and forgiveness but also of true faith in God on which this nation was founded. Many will argue that religion had no part in the founding of the United States and that our Founding Fathers, when they crafted the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, did not consider God at all in the development of those two very important documents. On both counts, they are wrong. Religion did play an important, if not crucial, role in the founding of America and our Founding Fathers most certainly did consider God when they crafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They had no intention of excluding God from the life of the American people. They realized and understood that in order for any nation to be great, righteous and just it must acknowledge the Creator who orders all things. A society without God is a society in chaos and our Founding Fathers understood this very clearly.
Let us celebrate Thanksgiving by manifesting in our lives the virtues of forgiveness and mercy. Let us also look to the mercy of God given to all of us and, in gratitude, share that with someone in our family, or someone we work with, and our friends, who may have wronged or hurt us in some way. Thanksgiving and pardon are expressions of each other. Indeed, they are the very nature of God, who for all eternity expresses thanksgiving in love and, in the course of human history and existence, in forgiveness.
God grant that we may always live in His light and be a holy nation, a righteous people whose lives glorify Him always and forever.