As families across the nation gather for the annual Thanksgiving feast, Kacey Musgraves song, Family Is Family, will resonate on some level—even if only a surface level. “They’re there for your first year and they’ll slip you your first beer…they own too much wicker and drink too much liquor…they may smoke like chimneys but’ll give you their kidneys…they show up at Chris-mus to get up in your busi-nus…when you’re divorced or remarried or when an old one gets buried…in church or in prison you don’t get to pick ‘em…family is funny, they’ll ask you for money…and though friends come in handy, family is family…”
Thanksgiving is the quintessential feast of family. For Catholics, the family table at our house is connected to the Eucharistic table at God’s house. “Thanksgiving” comes from the Greek word eucharistia. When it was chosen to identify the most important prayer in our Christian tradition, Eucharist captured what is most essential in family life. Thanksgiving Day gatherings at homes mimic our Eucharistic gatherings at churches. First, there is a greeting in which we are welcomed home or welcomed to our church home. Welcome means to come and be well. Home is where the heart is, the place that, as Robert Frost said, “When you go there, they have to take you in.” So it is with church.
We initially gather in a living room where we might learn news of those we care about or even recall something about our family history. Similarly, at Mass (Eucharist) we read from the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament) things about our faith history and hear letters from the Christian Scripture (New Testament) about what others are doing, like the travails of Saint Paul. Instead of letters today we may take calls, texts, or skype with those who cannot be with us. At Mass, we toss in a psalm (song); at the Thanksgiving gathering we may have background music or, if a family is musically inclined, even gather around a piano to sing together a song of the season. If Christian, we might even recall words of Jesus (Gospel); perhaps the head of the house offers some commentary on the importance of the gathering (homily) and invites each member of the family to say something for which s/he is thankful (prayers of the faithful); someone might even offer a mission statement on behalf of the family (Creed).
Just as the Mass transitions from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist and shifts from the pulpit (table of the spoken word) to the altar (table of the broken word), so does our Thanksgiving gathering shift from the living room to the dining room, from a place of dialogue to a place of digestion. As the family table is the center of our domestic house, so is the church altar the center of our ecclesial house. From our blood family to our family of faith, we are united with the table of the Last Supper/First Mass and we connect the table in our home to the one in God’s home. Sharing in the feast, we are nourished and nurtured by physical and spiritual food that we receive from God’s bounty, Christ’s sacrifice, and one another’s company.
As we dissect Thanksgiving Day and dissect our Catholic Eucharist, we discover many similar components. Fortunately, or unfortunately, our biological family, like our church family, has functions and dysfunctions. Musgraves’ lyrics lay it out with great imagery. Most families have challenges to overcome—as does the church. We hope and pray that our functions outshine our dysfunctions; and toward that end, we will continue to work on them. Our desire as a domestic family and church family is to overcome our foibles and become better. The holiday season is a good time for us to express the best of ourselves; we do that by the giving of gifts. It is symbolic of the giving of ourselves. The centerpiece of the Mass is the self-giving of God: the sacrament of Christ’s love that takes place as a sacrifice at the table of fellowship. Just as the table is the centerpiece of a family home—the place where we are nourished most—so it is with our church and our faith.
Whatever yours looks like, family is family. Treasure it. Enjoy the Thanksgiving feast and give gratitude to God.