Thursday, November 24, 2005

Gratitude

About ten years ago we were at the home of some friends, where we enjoyed a fine, abundant dinner. One of the guests, after ingesting enormous amounts of food, deposited his voluminous body mass on a wide sofa, like a contented walrus. He lay there, patting his engorged belly with a look of utter ecstasy on his face. Soon it would be time for dessert…

This is the experience of all too many Americans on Thanksgiving Day. While it is appropriate to celebrate with gratitude the abundance of Providence, it is scandalous to overindulge in food and drink. It would be less scandalous if it were done only once a year, but since the majority of Americans are obese, it’s clear that overindulgence has become a way of life.

In recent years, Thanksgiving has become something of a bittersweet holiday for me. The sweet part is the opportunity to set apart time to give God special thanks, both liturgically and in my own heart, for the multitude of his gifts for the benefit of body and soul. It is a time to “count our blessings” (and to cease complaining about the rest!) and to relax a little—and for us, to enjoy a break from the Advent fast (in the Byzantine tradition, the pre-Christmas “St Philip’s Fast” always begins on November 15, which is 40 days before Christmas).

The bitter part is knowing that most people in the world don’t get such a break. Millions of our brothers and sisters are not having turkey and the trimmings. They’ll be lucky to get a small bowl of rice. The desperately poor don’t get holidays for overindulging in food and drink. I have to wonder: why will I be eating well and they won’t be able to? I’m no better than they. Why are they starving and I well-fed? I’m very grateful for all I’ve been given, but I just can’t turn up the music so as not to hear the cries of the poor.

Our gratitude to God must not be pharisaical. In the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14), the Pharisee thanked God—that he was not like those he considered inferior to himself! When we express our gratitude on Thanksgiving Day, we should not merely thank God that we are not like the poor and destitute. Our gratitude should be expressed by helping others.

We have to begin by realizing that we do not deserve all the good things we have. We were born into relative affluence by God’s inscrutable design, but that doesn’t make us better than anyone else. We ought to pray with the psalmist: “How can I repay the Lord for all his bounty to me?” (116:12). Then listen in prayer for a while and He will tell you. All you have wasn’t given you so you could store it up or luxuriate in it. If you have more than those who are lacking even the basic necessities of life, realize that the reason you have been given extra is so that you can give it to others. We shouldn’t just feel sorry or offer a momentary prayer for “those less fortunate than ourselves.” We must put our money (and time) where our well-fed mouths are.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive,” said the Lord (Acts 20:35), so we should be grateful for the opportunity to give and thus to increase gratitude among others “so that as grace extends to more and more people, it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2Cor. 4:15).

So enjoy your dinner—moderately, with sincere gratitude to God. But don’t just plop down on the couch and start accumulating fat. Get up and share your abundance. Pray and work and give donations for the end of world poverty and hunger. The poor deserve a good meal at least as much as you do.