“No matter what happens,” St. Paul wrote, “always be thankful” (1 Thess. 5:18 NLT). “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything” (Eph. 5:19-20 NIV). On Thursday, most of us in the United States will pause for a national Thanksgiving, like we do every year. But this year, with the world in turmoil and our nation so politically divided, after eight months of dealing with Covid-19 and its quarter-million deaths in this country alone, and with most of the chairs around our Thanksgiving tables empty, it’s not easy advice to follow.
It wasn’t easy advice to follow in 1863, either. On October 3 that year, President Lincoln issued a proclamation making Thanksgiving Day a national holiday. The Civil War had begun two and a half years earlier. Three months before his proclamation, three days of fighting at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, claimed 51,000 casualties, and after his proclamation, the war would continue for more than a year and a half. It was not easy for the nation to give thanks.
But in the middle of a war pitting family against family and neighbor against neighbor, President Lincoln called on the nation to remember “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies” and other blessings of God, “which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.” It seemed “fit and proper,” Lincoln wrote, that those blessings “should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People” in “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” So a national holiday, Thanksgiving Day, was born.
How do we live gratefully in so much darkness? When it’s difficult to give thanks, I remember the blessings I have received and look harder into the darkness for the blessings it’s hard to see at first. I remember the psalmist’s assurance that when darkness covers us and the light around us becomes night, even the darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to God (Ps. 139:11-12).
“The night is as bright as the day.” That phrase came to mind as I was reading news about a discovery by NASA’s New Horizons space mission. For decades, astronomers have wondered about all that dark space between the galaxies. Is it really as dark as it seems? Now they appear to have an answer.
Researchers looked at pictures taken in the deep reaches of space far beyond Pluto; they processed the images to remove all known sources of visible light; then they subtracted light they could attribute to all the unseen galaxies they thought might be out there. When all that light had been removed, there was still plenty of light they couldn’t account for. In fact, the amount of light coming from mysterious sources they couldn’t identify was about equal to all the light coming from known sources.
Researchers guess the extra light could be coming from small, faint dwarf galaxies and other sources that instruments are not able to detect. Or maybe there’s more cosmic dust out there interfering with the measurements than scientists expected. Or they’ve suggested a more exotic and intriguing explanation, that some unknown phenomenon in the universe is creating visible light. In the deepest, darkest, emptiest regions of creation, something unknown to us may be creating light.
Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest intellects in the history of our faith, wrote, “Sacred writings are bound in two volumes – that of creation and that of the Holy Scriptures.” Saint Paul wrote that “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things [God] has made” (Rom. 1:20). God’s first scripture is the natural world, and NASA researchers seem to have opened a new chapter as yet unread.
Like that mysterious, never-before-seen light that fills the darkest reaches of space, the blessings of God’s presence fill the darkest corners and moments of our lives. There is no place, no experience, no condition of life, however dark and barren it may seem, where God is not. “As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep,” Ezekiel heard God say, “so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ezek. 34:12).
So this Thursday, and in every light or dark moment and circumstance of your life, “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God for everything.”