True Thanksgiving Isn’t Just Something We Do; It’s Something That Happens to Us

thanksgiving-2016One of the dangers in presenting New Testament moral teaching is reducing the gospel to a bunch of rules to follow using the power of one’s own flesh. This is an incorrect notion because for a Christian the moral life is not merely achieved; it is received. The moral life is not an imposition; it is a gift from God.

The Gospel chosen for Thanksgiving Day features the familiar story of the ten lepers who are healed by Jesus, but only one of whom returns to thank Him. The ingratitude of the other nine prompts an irritable response from Jesus, who more than suggests that they also should have returned to give thanks. Reading this Gospel on the surface, it is easy to conclude that it is a moral directive about being thankful to God and others. Well, that’s all well and good, but simply reminding people of a rule of polite society isn’t really the gospel message.

True thankfulness is receiving from God a deeply grateful heart so that we do not merely say thank you in a perfunctory way, but are deeply moved with gratitude. We are not merely being polite or justly rendering a debt of obligation; we actually are grateful from the heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift from God, which proceeds from a humble and transformed heart. We do not render thanks merely because it is polite or expected, but because it naturally flows from a profound experience of gratitude. This is the gospel message. It is not a moral platitude but rather a truth of a transformed heart.

An anointing that we should seek from God is the powerful transformation of our intellect and heart such that we become deeply aware of the remarkable gift that is everything we have. As this awareness deepens so does our gratitude and joy at the “magnificent munificence” of our God. Everything—literally everything—is a gift from God.

Permit me a few thoughts on the basis for a deepening awareness of gratitude. Ultimately, gratitude is a grace, but having a deeper awareness of the intellectual basis for it can help to open us more fully to this gift.

We are contingent beings who depend upon God for our very existence. He holds together every fiber of our being: every cell, every part of every cell, every molecule, every part of every molecule, every atom, every part of every atom. God facilitates every function of our body: every beat of our heart, every movement of our body. God sustains every detail of the universe: the perfectly designed orbit of Earth so that we do not overheat or freeze, the magnetic shield around Earth protecting us from the harmful aspects of solar radiation, and every process (visible and hidden) of everything on our planet, in our solar system, and in our galaxy. All of this, and us, are contingent; we are sustained by God and provided for by Him. The magnitude of what God does is simply astonishing—and He does it all free of charge! Pondering such goodness and providence helps us to be more grateful.

Every good thing we do is a gift from God. St. Paul said, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you glory as though you had achieved? (1 Cor 4:7) Elsewhere, he wrote, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:8-10). Hence even our good works are not our gift to God; they are His gift to us. On judgment day we cannot say to God, “Look what I’ve done; you owe me Heaven.” All we can say on that day is “Thank you!”

Gifts sometimes come in strange packages. There are some gifts of God that do not seem like gifts at all. There are sudden losses, tragedies, natural disasters, and the like. In such moments we can feel forsaken by God; gratitude is the last thing on our mind. But Scripture bids us to look again: And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God and who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). We don’t always know how, but even in difficult moments God is making a way unto something good, something better. He is paving a path to glory—perhaps through the cross—but unto glory. We may have questions, but remember that Jesus said, But I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. On that day you will have no more questions to ask me (Jn 16:22-23). Yes, even in our difficulties we are more than conquerors (Rm 8:37) because the Lord can write straight with crooked lines, and make a way out of no way.

All is gift. Absolutely everything is gift. Even our failures are gifts, provided we are in Christ and learn humility from them. For what shall we give thanks? Everything! There is an old saying, “Justice is when you get what you deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve. Grace is when you get what you don’t deserve.” Like you, I am asked many times a day, “How are you doing?” I’ve trained myself to respond, “More blessed than I deserve.”

The word “thanks” in English is unfortunately abstract. In Latin and the Romance languages, the words for thanks are more closely related to the concepts of grace and gift. In Latin, one says thank you by saying, “Gratias ago tibi,” or simply, “Gratias.” And although gratias is translated as “thanks,” it is really the same root word as that of “grace” and “gift,” which in Latin are rendered as “gratia.” Hence in saying this, one is exclaiming, “Grace!” or “Gifts!” It is the same in Spanish (Gracias) and Italian (Grazie). French has a slightly different approach: Merci comes from the Latin merces, which refers to something that has been paid for or given freely. So all of these languages recognize that the things for which we are grateful are really gifts. The English word “thanks” does not quite make the connection. About the closest we get in English are the words “gratitude” and “grateful.” All of these words (gratias, gracias, grazie, merci, gratitude) teach us that everything is gift!

Gratitude is a gift to be received from God and should be asked for humbly. One can dispose oneself to it by reflecting on some of the things described above, but ultimately gratitude comes from a humble, contrite, and transformed heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift that springs from a heart moved, astonished, and deeply aware of the fact that all is gift.

6 Replies to “True Thanksgiving Isn’t Just Something We Do; It’s Something That Happens to Us”

  1. Sure. Let us give thanks.

    “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” (Luke 18: 11-12)

    Hehe.

    North-American ‘Thanksgiving Day’ is about the descendants of white European colonists being grateful for having plundered the lands of the heathen redskin Amerindians.

    I’ve once seen on television a rich and frivolous North-American ‘reality’-show celebrity lecturing to someone that they should be grateful for what they have.

    Apropos: Should (and can) a man be thankful to God for what he has obtained through his own work and effort?

    1. Garth,
      and yet:

      “They condemn others in their heart when they see that they have not the kind of devotion which they themselves desire; and sometimes they even say this in words, herein resembling the Pharisee, who boasted of himself, praising God for his own good works and despising the publican.” (St John of the Cross, Dark Night, Book I, Chapter II; emphasis added)

      I’ve only tried to point out that the passion for vainglory and pride can distort even gratefulness.

      Everyone,
      perhaps this ‘Fox’ (Zorro) has been too cynical about the North-American harvest celebration.

      But as somebody has remarked (not on this blog): the U.S.A., as a nation (that in its majority is composed of the descendants of European colonists), haven’t, as of now, apologized to the Amerindians and to the Africans for the way the European colonists have treated their ancestors, upon whose plundered lands and broken lives the cities and the economy of the U.S.A. have been built.

      If some North-American Catholics think that such an apology would be unnecessary, then has the Catholic Church’s apology from the year 2000 for its sins of the past also been unnecessary?

    2. (Continued.)

      While I can occasionally be thankful for existence in general (though I have my moments when I complain about our earthly condition in which “all is vanity”), I find it very difficult to give thanks to God for specific things, for a few simple reasons:
      1) except for to keep the world in existence, I have no idea what God actually does within contemporary history (and my own ‘story’);
      2) except for to keep and to strive to keep the Ten Commandments, I have no idea what else God wants of me to do (e.g., to have a specific profession?);
      3) how can I give thanks (to God) for earthly prosperity when the Christ Jesus has taught us to not care for wealth, and when there are so many people who live in misery? — I’ve tried to tell myself that “their earthly misery is for the good of their souls,” but the truth is that the ‘prosperity gospel’ is not an orthodox Catholic teaching.

    3. Note: Perhaps this brief part from the blog article has made me think of the parable of the publican (tax collector) and the Pharisee:

      “Hence even our good works are not our gift to God; they are His gift to us.”

      Can a man give thanks to God for his own good works?

      (The rest of my previous comments are merely me thinking out ‘loud’ about the typical North-American culture and mentality regarding thanksgiving and prosperity — or what I’ve read about it –, and about my own difficulty to give thanks for specific things. Sorry for their length.)

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