I spent this Thanksgiving looking into our country from the outside, since right now I’m doing a bit of traveling in South America. So naturally, I had to explain to lots of curious friends and strangers what exactly we were celebrating last Thursday. And being the typical American that I am, I had to research it myself because I did not understand the full history! In researching our national holiday, I learned things I never knew before – like Lincoln was the first to declare an annual national day of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, and that a female magazine editor, Sarah Hale, was crucial in movitating and inspiring the President to do so. And that the tradition existed way before that, being born of several different trends of giving thanks for bountiful harvests, including Puritan religious days of thanksgiving and fasting, and dating back to the “first Thanksgiving feast” which actually happened between pilgrims and Native Americans in Massachusetts in 1621 (you can check out a quick video here). But what really impressed me as I read the history of how the country became united around this act of thanksgiving, was to see how it was uniquely born of our nation´s history. Whether you celebrate it religiously or not (as Christians we give thanks to Someone), every American’s tradition and heritage can be expressed and gathered into this unique holiday. For me, this is expressed the uniqueness of our heritage – that we are a country that has a unique gift for bearing original life, that we are a unique place from which new traditions, born of the blending and tensions between many traditions, can be born. I see this heritage as part of our mission as a nation. We have something beautiful and unique to share with the world!
And each one of us contributes to this great mission, by carrying out our individual missions. As Viktor Frankl wrote:
“Life is a task. The religious man differs from the apparently irreligious man only by experiencing his existence not simply as a task, but as a mission. This means that he is also aware of the taskmaster, the source of his mission. For thousands of years that source has been called God.” ¹
As Christians, giving thanks and praise to God goes hand in hand with asking for forgiveness. When I begin to thank Him for all the blessings in my life – my absolutely amazing parents, my family so generous in love, my upbringing, my relationships and friends and those who enrich my life so deeply, the work I am given, the talents entrusted to me…I also see all the ways I have fallen short of these blessings, all the times I have closed myself to receiving God’s graces and blessings. And so it is with our nation. This Thanksgiving I saw in a new way the powerful influence that we still have as a nation, and the powerful gift we have of creating new life.
But I also saw how we have fallen short, the many ways we have misused this influence, and the rotten fruit we have often born. We, the United States, are responsible both for being the birthplace of democracy and the seedbed where an exaggerated individualism has flourished; for being leaders in the fight for human rights and for a misguided and unipolar emphasis on a woman’s “right” to her own body which gives her a “right” to abort a child; we are responsible for defending the innocent with true justice and for continuing to enforce the barbaric injustice that is the death penalty; we are pioneers in the organic food movement and in respecting nature and we are the pioneers of out-of-control consumerism and materialism, dragging other cultures and nations in the abyss of our “throw-away” culture (see Pope Francis comments on the “provisorio” culture, here, here and here). Perhaps you will say we weren’t protagonists in these actions, that other nations and histories contributed, and you would be right – but we must take up the responsibility that is ours.
In taking up this responsibility, I see so, so much hope. Indeed a real mission consciousness can only begin in the smallness and humility of knowing oneself, including all weakness and sin alongside grace. And my dear fellow Americans, we have SUCH a great calling – a unique calling as Catholics in the US! So I am taking this spirit of Thanksgiving and allowing God to lead me through it right into Advent, and I invite you each to do the same. Last Thursday, as a nation we gathered our families around us and gave thanks to God for His blessings. And yesterday, on Sunday, together we began the Advent Season. The readings were a beautiful invitation to meditate upon the advent of our mission. During mass, we first heard Isaiah crying out with honesty and anguish of the sins of his people, the ways they wandered from their mission. The reading from Isaiah concluded saying:
Yet, O LORD, you are our father;
we are the clay and you the potter:
we are all the work of your hand.
We have sinned, and yet you are our Redeemer, and we are the work of your hands! God will yet craft something beautiful out of us, and He will do it using all of us, each one of us and the whole of each of us! Then we heard St. Paul’s words, giving thanks to God and praying that we may be confirmed in Christ “so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 1:3-9). The revelation of our Lord! That is what is coming this Christmas, at the climax of the Advent season, that is what we waiting for, for which we should “be watchful” and “be alert!”
For just as Christ grew slowly within His Mother’s womb, so too does our mission grow slowly within each of us. We may all in a different place in the growth of this mission consciousness – some of y’all may be in high school or college and just learning to discern God’s voice in your life in a deeper way; some of y’all may be like me, starting professional careers and with graduate school, starting to see that mission take shape; and some might be half-way through life, re-evaluating where God has led you thus far and perhaps embarking on a new phase! Wherever you are on your journey, I invite you to really live Advent in this spirit. Advent is a primarily a liturgical time of preparation, preparing to receive the Christ Child. Through our life of faith as Catholics, God slowly reveals Christ within us and to us, and slowly we understand how we are called to give birth to Christ, the particular way in which we are called to be a revelation of Him – that is the Advent³ of our mission.
For your Advent Challenge, I invite you to use this first week of Advent to reflect in the spirit of an advent of your mission. Take 20 minutes sometime during the week to pray and reflect with God, you can use the following reflections and questions to help you get started:
- As Catholics in the US, we have a great mission, and a unique mission. What are the grander characteristics of this mission which we share in common as US Catholics?
- What do you see as your own part of that mission? You have a unique task which no one but yourself can achieve, for which God has designed you with great love and attention. Viktor Frankl also spoke of this specific meaning and mission in life that each individual has: “That meaning must be specific and personal, a meaning which can be realized be this one person alone. For we must never forget that every man is unique in the universe.” ²
- And finally, how do you see that you have strayed from this mission? Let us ask for forgiveness as we prepare our hearts through each pardon and each step of growth, to be ready more and more for the mission! Let us rejoice in the mercy of God, as the Father and divine Potter who shapes us in love, and let us especially ask our Blessed Mother to accompany us and educate us during this Advent Season. Amen.
¹ Frankl, V. The Doctor and the Soul. 1986. p.xxi
²Frankl, V. The Doctor and the Soul. 1986. p.xvi
³Advent means “a coming into place, view, or being; arrival” – it is a commencement, an onset – the Advent of Christ!