By Frank Wessling
Thanksgiving is a valuable feast. We should pause in our usual busyness and take time to appreciate it. This isn’t your mother nagging you to thank Aunt Maggie for the birthday shirt she sent. This is the entire community, our neighbors, our family, following a tradition of public gratitude for the life we share.
For most of us, life in this country has meant good things: opportunity, freedom, personal security, not to mention a superabundance of material goods. We should be grateful. At the same time, Thanksgiving can tempt a kind of smugness and narrow satisfaction with our own good fortune and the fine condition of our families. Our prayer of thanks might become like that of the proud Pharisee in the Gospel we heard five Sundays ago (Lk. 18:9-14). He was so full of himself that Jesus made him a historic bad example.
The Pharisee’s problem was forgetting that his life and everything in it is gift. He didn’t design himself and he didn’t, all alone, make anything that he had. His self-satisfaction masked a poverty of spirit that fears and avoids the truth, where God resides. The other man in that Gospel story, the humble Publican in the back pew, knew his particular poverty, and by owning it was refreshed, renewed.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia addressed a conference on the Church in America two weeks ago in Mexico City and spoke of poverty in the United States. He laid out two forms of it, material and moral. Both are a hindrance to reception of the Gospel and, to the extent that Christians accept or tolerate them, both corrupt our attempts to preach the word of God.
That speech deserves extensive quoting. On material poverty, Archbishop Chaput said:
“Poverty is an acid that destroys human kinship. It burns away the bonds of mutual love and obligation that make individuals into a community. The United States is the richest, most powerful nation in history. But one in every six persons in my country now lives below the poverty line. And poverty always, inevitably comes with a family of other ugly issues: hunger, homelessness, street crime, domestic violence, unemployment, human trafficking. . . .
“The trouble is that the economy of the United States still succeeds so well for so many of its people that the poor become invisible. And being invisible, they can be ignored.”
He then spoke of another poverty in our life:
“I mean the moral poverty that comes from an advanced culture relentlessly focused on consuming more of everything; a culture built on satisfying the self; a culture that runs on ignoring the needs of other people. That kind of poverty, as Mother Teresa saw so well, is very much alive in my country. It’s like a parasite of the soul. It leaves us constantly hungry for something more – all the while starving the spirit that makes us truly human….
“Abundance can murder the soul as easily as scarcity can. It’s just a different kind of poverty.”
We are entering the season of Advent, anticipating and waiting for the great good of Christmas. During those four weeks we will take advantage of this country’s material abundance in buying gifts for people we love. So that this activity doesn’t consume us and become soul murder, we need at the same time to look around and attend to those invisible poor. Most parishes will help with opportunities and ideas for doing this.
Make those poor families, individuals, children visible at least in our consciousness by offering gifts of time or material goods in the same way we would for a loved one. In this way, Christ is born again. We become like the Virgin Mary, giving ourselves to the process of making the world new. A cosmic thanksgiving follows.