A seventy-four-year-old magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln on September 28, 1863, urging him to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.”
The United States had held such observances sporadically across our history, beginning with a proclamation by President George Washington on October 3, 1789. However, each state scheduled its own Thanksgiving holiday at different times.
Of all the years to proclaim a unified Thanksgiving observance, 1863 would seem to be the least likely. The Civil War was raging, by far the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history. The Battle of Gettysburg had been waged less than three months earlier, the costliest battle ever fought on American soil.
Nonetheless, President Lincoln agreed to this request, issuing a proclamation on October 3 of that year in which he invited “my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
If Americans could observe Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War, surely you and I can do the same today.
Giving thanks at Jesus’ feet
Thanksgiving in 2020 is a day of conflicting emotions, as we are grateful for many blessings and yet surrounded by uncertainty, especially with a raging pandemic. And yet, the harder it is to give thanks, the more we need what thanksgiving produces in our souls.
Do you remember the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus?
In Luke 17, we read that only one of them “fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks” (v. 16). Our Lord said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (v. 19).
“Well” translates a Greek word that means to be rescued, healed, or saved. It speaks to the totality of salvation in every dimension of life. The other nine were healed physically, but only this man experienced spiritual healing.
His act of gratitude did not earn such grace, which by definition cannot be merited, only received. Rather, it positioned him to experience what Jesus would have given all ten of the lepers if they had done what this man did.
Would you take time today to consider all the ways God has healed you?
- Think about your physical life, a gift you did not earn or create.
- Consider this day, a gift you could not produce.
- Reflect upon the God-given capacities and opportunities by which you have worked for what you possess.
- Pause to think about those who love you beyond all that you deserve.
Now shift your gaze from the present to the eternal.
- Consider that you would spend eternity separated from God in hell except that Jesus died on your cross in your place to pay the debt for your sins and purchase your salvation (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21).
- Celebrate the fact that your life and your eternal life are gifts your Father chose to give you by his grace.
In light of all he has given to you, would you take time today to fall “at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks”?
“He is a man I need to thank”
Tony O’Brien was a reporter for LIFE magazine in 1989, sent to cover the fall of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. He found himself in the midst of a brutal civil war and was thrown into an Afghan prison by Soviet-backed security forces.
During this horrific ordeal, O’Brien shared a cell with a Shiite Muslim. The two men struck up a wonderful friendship as Ali provided constant encouragement and hope for O’Brien. Eventually, the reporter was released and returned to his New Mexico home.
Three years later, O’Brien found himself once again on a plane bound for Kabul. He explained his purpose for returning in an article in the August 1992 issue of LIFE:
The last time I saw Nader Ali, he was behind bars, watching me walk to freedom. I never thought I would see him again, never thought I would go back to Afghanistan. But now I am on a plane, returning to the place I spent the most terrifying weeks of my life. He is a man I need to thank…. I have thanked everyone else—those who got me out of prison, who called my mother every day. Yet I never thanked the person who gave me the strength to live. Afghanistan is free now, but I am not (his emphases).
For days, Tony O’Brien searched a city of 1.5 million people until he found Nader Ali and thanked him. Only then was he free and whole.
Will Thanksgiving make you “well” today?