Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving Day Mass? No, thanks

This post will probably be of interest primarily to readers in the United States, as it concerns the upcoming American holiday of Thanksgiving Day (26 November). Yet it addresses theological and liturgical issues of more global import. What follows is an article of mine that was published in the June 2004 issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review (pp. 57-60), titled "Thanksgiving Day Mass." I present it here in the hope of dissuading readers who are priests from using the Mass propers for Thanksgiving Day, as found in the Sacramentary for use in the United States. Instead, for reasons that are explained in what follows, I suggest using the propers for either of the two Masses "In Thanksgiving" (No. 39 of the "Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Occasions" [No. 49 in the Missale Romanum of 2002]). And so, good Fathers, for what you think it's worth...

Like many of my brother priests and faithful Catholics, I eagerly await the arrival of the new English translation of the Missale Romanum, currently in the works. Now that the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) has been revamped and the Vox Clara Committee has been established to exercise “quality control” over vernacular liturgical texts, we can reasonably expect, in tempore opportune, a noble and accurate English translation of the Latin Missal. In addition, we will have Mass propers for many of the saints canonized – or, in some instances, whose feasts/memorials have been restored to the General Roman Calendar – since the previous [second] editio typica of the Roman Missal was published in 1975. There is, however, something I am hoping not to find in the new and improved English-language Missal, whenever it may appear, and that is the Mass of Thanksgiving Day, used in the dioceses of the United States. At best, it is unnecessary; at worst, it is misleading.
For starters, American Catholics do not need a special feast or liturgical service for thanking God. The Eucharist is the supreme act of thanksgiving, celebrated throughout the world in various rites every day except Good Friday. Besides, the Roman Missal already provides two formularies for Masses offered in gratitude for blessings received.[1] By the same logic, one could object that the Missa pro remissione peccatorum[2] is likewise unnecessary, since every Mass makes present, here and now, in sacramental form, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins. But my chief objection to the Thanksgiving Day Mass is not that it is unnecessary; my principal objection is theological. In its current form, the Preface of this Mass plays into a distinctively American misconstrual of divine election. Here is the full text:[3]
¶1 / Father,
we do well to join all creation,
in heaven and on earth,
in praising you, our mighty God
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
¶2 / You made man to your own image
and set him over all creation.
Once you chose a people
and, when you brought them out of bondage to
freedom, they carried with them the promise
that all men would be blessed
and all men could be free.
¶3 / What the prophets pledged
was fulfilled in Jesus Christ,
your Son and our saving Lord.
It has come to pass in every generation
for all men who have believed that Jesus
by his death and resurrection
gave them a new freedom in his Spirit.
¶4 / It happened to our fathers,
who came to this land as if out of the desert
into a place of promise and hope.
It happens to us still, in our time,
as you lead all men through your Church
to the blessed vision of your peace.
¶5 / And so, with hearts full of love,
we join the angels, today and every day of our lives,
to sing your glory in a hymn of endless praise:
Holy, holy, holy…
Since this Preface is used solely on Thanksgiving Day, it is easy to understand how worshipers could mistake the People whom the Lord delivered from bondage (¶2) for the Pilgrims. Before potential misapprehension could be dispelled, half the Preface would already be prayed, at which point we are told (rather, God is told), albeit obliquely, that the liberated People who bore the promise of blessings and freedom were the Jews: “What the prophets pledged was fulfilled in Jesus Christ…” (¶3). God delivered His People, Israel, from slavery in Egypt and eventually brought them to freedom in the Promised Land. Later, through the Prophets, God promised to redeem the People of the Old Covenant from that true slavery which is sin – a promise fulfilled in Christ. The identity of the chosen nation could be made clear at the outset simply by inserting the word “Israel” after the word “people” (¶2): “Once you chose a people, Israel, and gave them a destiny…”
More problematic, however, is the remainder of the Preface. It rightly presents Israel’s Exodus as an archetypal event of epic proportions, but invites the disputable (to my mind, at least) connection of that event with the American experience: Just as God freed the Chosen People from slavery, so “in every generation,” through the grace of the Paschal Mystery (¶3), He frees people from captivity to sin and the devil; indeed, “it happened to our fathers” and it “happens to us still, in our time,” through the Church’s witness and mediation (¶4) – “it” being the salvation pledged by the Prophets and realized in every generation for those reborn in Christ. Since the identity of “our fathers” is not indicated, I presume the term refers either to the Pilgrims and other Puritans who came to America beginning in 1620, or to all our immigrant forebears regardless of their place of origin. If the former, the Preface is potentially misleading; if the latter, it is historically inaccurate.
It is unlikely that “our fathers” is a general reference to all immigrants of yesteryear, since the context provided by the preceding (third) paragraph would include these fathers among “all men who have believed that Jesus by his death and resurrection gave them a new freedom in his Spirit.” Surely, however, the Preface’s author knew that not all who came to this “place of promise and hope” were Christians (though after Vatican II it was fashionable in some theological circles to speak of “anonymous Christians”).
Given that this Preface is used solely on Thanksgiving Day, I think I can safely suppose “our fathers” to have been the 17th-century Puritans. They were all Christians, even if their ultra-Protestantism placed them decidedly outside the Tradition of historic Christian orthodoxy (which is why they were persecuted in England and sailed to these shores). If I am correct, then I do not think I am out of line in questioning, with all ecumenical regard, whether a Catholic liturgical text should memorialize (however implicitly) a sect whose flight to America was necessitated by its zeal to purify the (Anglican) Church of the old leaven of Catholicism. But I have a weightier objection.
While I acknowledge that, in one way or another, all generations of Christians have given expression to the mystery of redemption in analogies suggested by their culture and circumstances, I nonetheless think that paralleling the Pilgrim exodus (¶4) with Israel’s Exodus (¶2) encourages a false typology. Appreciative of Christianity’s Hebraic heritage and convinced that the Church was apostate, the Puritans saw themselves as the New Israel, the uncorrupted remnant of the faithful, freshly sprung from transatlantic captivity and striking out into the wilderness. (Christian history is littered with faithful remnants that have reestablished the “true Church,” usually in opposition to the allegedly false Roman Church, and then, later, in opposition to their own previously true churches.) Like biblical Israel, they viewed themselves as having entered into a special covenant with God to be His People. It is worth noting that Thanksgiving Day, first celebrated in the autumn of 1621, derives from the Jewish harvest festival of Tabernacles (or Booths), the annual eight-day ceremonial anticipation of the great Messianic ingathering of all nations to occur at the end of time.[4] The Puritans’ self-identification as Israel Reconstituted gave rise to the notion, now long-embedded in our national psyche, that America is the darling of divine Providence, a (the?) chosen nation whose every aspiration is underwritten by the Almighty.[5] Wrong. The Church, not America, is the New Israel, the fulfillment of the promise that Israel would be “a light to the nations” (Isa. 49:6), the center to which all nations are destined to converge in order to see the glory of God. While I love my country, I do not hesitate to add that America is one nation among many, no less loved by God, but no more. Texts facilitating a misunderstanding of the one People of God (for which there is no plural) do not belong in our liturgical books.
I am sure that the agents of a liturgical “reform of the reform” have much bigger fish to fry (or turkeys to cook). And I would be surprised to learn that the Thanksgiving Day Mass has crossed anyone else’s mind when taking into account the long overdue improvements to be made to the English-language Missal [for use in the United States]. Still, it is not too late to consider either excising this Mass altogether, or at least revising its Preface so as to obviate misidentifications of God’s chosen, pilgrim People and the City they inhabit. For that, I would be truly thankful.

[1] Missale Romanum, 3rd typical edition (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2002), Missae et orationes pro variis necessitatibus vel ad diversa, No. 49 (“Pro Gratiis Deo Reddendis,” pp. 1153-54. These two Mass formularies appear also in the previous editions of the Missal of Paul VI (1970 and 1975).
[2] Ibid., No. 38 (“Pro Remissione Peccatorum”), pp. 1139-40.
[3] Preface #84 in the English Sacramentary for use in the United States. The numbers at the beginning of each paragraph do not appear in the Sacramentary; these are meant to facilitate reference.
[4] See Lev. 23:33-43. Unlike the other two feasts celebrated each year by mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem, namely, Passover and Pentecost, the Feast of Tabernacles has no counterpart in the Christian liturgical cycle. The Puritans tolerated no religious celebrations lacking precedent under the Old Covenant, not even Christmas.
[5] The “theologizing” of the American experience has a venerable heritage, from the Puritans to the founding fathers, to Lincoln (perhaps its most eloquent and nuanced exemplar), and, after Lincoln, to Presidents Wilson, Reagan, and […] Bush. Having fallen out of vogue for some time, that tradition was revived in our public rhetoric especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001. For a critical analysis of this current in American thought, see Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968); for a fine short essay, see Peter J. Leithart, “Typology and the Public Church,” First Things 77 (November 1997): 12-13.