For more than twenty years I dealt, in a professional way, with people in a variety of needs. Some need profound, others simple.
In that period, I must have helped nearly a hundred people with gasoline vouchers, clothing, and bus tickets. I have had an arrangement with a local grocery store to allow families in need to purchase groceries and charge them to my discretionary account. Parish priests everywhere expect all this, and as a parish priest it was and has been my privilege to serve people in need.
In the years since my ordination, only two people ever came back to me to give thanks for the help provided; this is not uncommon for clergy. In fact, I think some would be surprised that two have returned to express gratitude. The truly strange thing about the two who returned to thank me is that they repaid the gift I had given them—two strangers who I saw only twice in my life gratefully repaid me for helping them. In their profuse thankfulness, I told them it was not me who helped; it was the Church, the body of Christ.
Is there a difference between being thankful and being grateful? The nine who followed Jesus’ direction to show themselves to the priests in Jerusalem were certainly thankful, but the one, the foreigner, the Samaritan, was grateful—filled with a sense of gratitude. Certainly, there were cultural issues mixed into this event—the Jews had priests to show themselves to so that they could be taken off the list of lepers, but the Samaritan had only Jesus. (See the Gospel according to Luke, 17:11-19.)
After the election in November and all the stuff that has been bombarding us these past several weeks, there will be a time for us in this country to reflect on what we are thankful. This moment of is brief, but we do have a time when most of us will sit at a family table filled with good food to at least go through the motion of giving thanks.
In my memory, as a boy, I sat at the table and drooled over all the good food there and looked forward to more to come. After one of us had said grace and before we watched father destroy the roasted turkey with his carving knife, we had to say something about for which we were thankful. I can’t remember what I said, but you can be assured I mumbled, “I’m grateful for my mother and father.” My mother would be thankful for her four children, and my father would say something about living in a “great” country. Then, we would eat, and eat. The conversation would continue. We would retire to the living room, to nap, or watch television—of course, my mother would clean up everything. I was thankful for that, but never again during the day would being thankful for anything be a part of our conversation. It wasn’t that we weren’t thankful; we were very pleased by our circumstances. We knew we were blessed to be living in abundance and peace.
Thanksgiving Day is for many, I believe, not a day of gratitude but merely a feast day. It is a feast day based on the mythology of Puritans who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts having dinner with the local natives. However, the Puritans were there to establish a religious colony that forbade dissent. The survivors of the first year of the settlement were thankful they didn’t die of disease or from angry natives, but they seemingly lacked gratitude for the one event in history that made all the difference in their lives and ours today.
Since my first experience with the Book of Common Prayer, the words move me, especially the words of the General Thanksgiving found in the Daily Offices or Morning and Evening Prayer. The words speak to our need to be thankful for our lives and very being but for something more and imperative to those who lead a Christian life.
The words are:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
We give “humble thanks for all [God’s] goodness.” And “we bless [God] for our creation and preservation.” Those are the words of thanksgiving any of us can make at most any time. However, it is the “immeasurable love” of God we are to turn back from our pursuits and survival efforts and praise God for that immeasurable gift that makes a difference—the person of Jesus Christ, who is the means, the source, of grace and the hope of glory.
The means of grace is an extraordinary gift. Grace gives us the focus to care, to be available to others, and to act to alleviate need. Grace is the love of God that Christians must eventually reflect in the Christian’s life and words. Grace is love just as God is love; God is grace. The term reflects kindness, elegance, charity, forgiveness, and mercifulness. Jesus is the means to all that is positive in life and our relationships with God.
Finally, we must be grateful, filled with gratitude, when we consider that the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is the means of glory. Glory in that we too share in this form of everlasting joy and be in the eternal presence of God. This joy is available to us in life. God is totally present with us and in us. The Holy Spirit of God is the ultimate gift and accessible by the simple act of prayer. Grace is a gift of unending promise. A gift we must see as the same gift given to the ten who were told to show themselves to the priests. All we need to do is to realize healing regardless of life’s challenges and circumstances. All we need to do is to stop, feel God’s presence, and then praise God for the gift of life and mostly of the gift of love.