Saturday, November 29th, 2008
Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP, a professor of theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, preached the following homily there this past Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. In reflecting on the gratitude we as a country owe to God, he offered an excellent meditation on our nation’s place not simply in world history but in salvation history. Only from this perspective, Fr. Thomas Joseph reminds us, can we Americans give our best and most fervent thanks. And what’s more, God provides us the food to do so.
In 1630, standing on the deck of a small wooden ship called the Arbella, John Winthrop, a student of Reformed divinity, uttered words now famous to his confreres with whom he was about to embark in the new world of North America: “For we must consider, he said, that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken… we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God… We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us until we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a-going.” A good land, a city on the hill, a place of new covenant with God on a new continent, and a land for which we should give thanks. The puritan’s remarks are in one sense too theologically exaggerated, both in their optimism and pessimism concerning the importance of the fledgling colony. But they are also a great word that we turn back to repeatedly in American self-definition and idealization. A city built on a hill.
Without seeking to efface this image altogether, we ought also to note that the Scriptures we are given today (Rev. 18:1-2, 21-23; 191-3, 9a; Lk. 21:20-28) in this eschatological season also speak of a city, of two cities in fact. Of Jerusalem, the holy city, which has refused the time of her visitation, turning her back on Christ, and who will be trampled underfoot by the pagans. And the city of Babylon, the great city of the end times, of a humanity that has become godless in its soot and commerce, a city that will evaporate before the judgment of God, to be thrown down, and never found again.