Our nation’s most significant holy day is Thanksgiving. I’m not being blasphemous. Well, maybe I am a bit. But I’m not aware of any traditional faith groups (Christian, Jewish, Islam, Buddhist or others) that designate the fourth Thursday of the November as a holy (sacred) day.
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Thanksgiving has been celebrated nationally on and off since 1789 after Congress requested a proclamation from President George Washington.
Consider what we know about our past: There were the underdog pilgrims’ courage and dedication to freedom of conscience, their struggle to leave the familiar to settle in a new place (immigrants, refugees for freedom), first to Holland and then to this land that was then the New World. They endured a frightening passage in substandard ships that ended up off course in a place where they should not be, and then the tragic loss of half their people (colony). There was then a rescue of the survivors by the people they would ultimately displace. Those native saviors would be eventually very poorly treated. It can be argued criminally treated.
The tradition has been celebrated as a federal holiday on the last Thursday in November every year since 1864, when, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
He wrote, “It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year, defending us with His guardian care against unfriendly designs from abroad and vouchsafing to us in His mercy many and signal victories over the enemy, who is of our own household.”
Abraham Lincoln, savior of the nation and accused atheist, certainly understood Thanksgiving to be about reverence and hope.
In the midst of a tragic civil war, the 16th U.S. President and Commander-in-Chief presided over a bloody experiment in national suicide. Resolutely spiritual are his words from 153 years ago, “… the great trial of civil war into which we have been brought by our adherence as a nation to the cause of freedom and humanity, and to afford to us reasonable hopes of an ultimate and happy deliverance from all our dangers and afflictions.”
The Union’s victory was not inevitable. There were desperate periods in that four-year struggle. In the midst of that, he thought it good to remember life’s relatedness to a power beyond human capacity or achievement.
Our nation’s tradition of freedom of religion provides President Lincoln and us the possibility of learning and applying our best selves to understand the interdependence of all life. Honoring of the creative energy is a faith that needs not be a binding thing, but rather can be a deep and wide adventure. Relations with the sustaining wonder is a fitting ideal and practice as we remember our imperfect heritage of freedom.
There are all sorts of ideas about the who, what, and how of that ultimate mystery. Faith as a verb is “trusting.” That combined with reverence is the “reason for the season” that is our imperfect union and struggling civilization.
Reverend Doak M. Mansfield is minister of the Community Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasco, Washington. Questions and comments should be directed to editor Lucy Luginbill in care of the Tri-City Herald newsroom, 333 W. Canal Drive, Kennewick, WA 99336. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.