Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Responsible Thanksgiving

Usually on Thanksgiving Day I make some remarks about the choice of readings for the Divine Liturgy, since they are, well, remarkable (1Tim. 6:6-11,17-19 and Luke 12:13-15,22-31). They are remarkable inasmuch as they are counter-cultural, and may even be seen by some as throwing a wet blanket on the usual self-indulgent festivities. While everyone is overeating and overdrinking, Jesus says: “beware of greed, for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” and “do not be anxious about what you shall eat… instead, seek the Kingdom of God…” And St Paul warns the wealthy (and those who want to be wealthy) that they are setting themselves up for ruin and destruction, and not to set their hopes on uncertain riches, but to be content with God’s providence.

We know that 1-2% of the world’s people are extremely wealthy, another few percent are moderately well-off, and the rest are relatively poor or extremely destitute. Our celebration of Thanksgiving should not be pharisaical, using, in effect, the same words of prayer that the Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel used: “I thank you, O God, that I am not like the others…”—the poor and starving, those without shelter or medical care. Thanksgiving is not about being grateful that we’re better off than others, for that very state of affairs indicates a situation of injustice in our world. We’re not supposed to be better off than others, and if we are, we have to share what we have so as to help others become better off than they are right now.

It is not enough for us to sit back in our easy chairs and say, “hey, like thanks, God, for all this stuff,” and then return to our turkey and beer and football without a second thought. For God will say, “hey, like when are you going to truly thank Me by sharing your stuff with My poor ones?” Remember that little story about the man who complained to God about all the poverty and misery he saw around him, and asked God why He didn’t do anything about it. God answered him: “I did do something about it. I made you.”

Thanksgiving does mean gratitude for what the Lord has granted us, materially and spiritually, but it does not imply luxuriating in comfort and abundance. Rather, it implies a response that shows that we care as much about others as God cares about us. “Thanks-giving”: first we thank, then we give, so that others may be able to thank.

Responsibility as an element of thanksgiving is found throughout the Scriptures. When the Israelites were about to take possession of the promised land, the Lord reminded them of all the blessings He was granting them, but warned them that if they disobeyed his commandments then curses would fall on them. And when Jesus healed the paralytic by the pool, he said to him: “sin no more, lest something worse befall you.” We are not only to receive, but to give; what we receive is not to be jealously hoarded but responsibly shared.

God has ways of rewarding those who are generous with what they have received from Him. I remember making a fairly large donation to the poor at one time, and wondering if I was perhaps giving away too much, due to our own financial situation. Well, that same day a woman walked in, and without a word of explanation handed me the exact amount I had just given away. So I knew that I had done the right thing (it was the right thing anyway, but that kind of confirmation is always welcome!). And that is not the only time such things have happened. God not only loves a cheerful giver, He rewards a generous giver.

While we are celebrating Thanksgiving, let us not limit our reflections or actions to the sphere of material things. We should all make the effort to be present on Thanksgiving Day at the ultimate act of thanksgiving, the Holy Eucharist which, I’m sure you’ve heard many times, means “thanksgiving.” We often give thanks in our liturgical prayers. In the priest’s prayer before the “Holy, holy, holy,” we give thanks several times: “It is proper and just to sing hymns to You, to bless You, to praise You, to thank You, to worship You…” After a short summary of what God has done for us, we continue: “For all this we give thanks to You… for all that we know and do not know, the manifest and hidden benefits bestowed upon us. We thank you also for this Sacrifice, which You have willed to accept from our hands…”

We thank God the Father for the sacrifice of his only-begotten Son, by which we are sanctified and saved, and that this sacrifice is made present to us, in its fullness of grace and love and spiritual fruitfulness, every time we approach the holy altar to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. This is a gift for which mere thanks are not enough. So we fall down in worship before the Lord, and we recognize in gratitude our responsibility to live what we receive, to be other Christs in the world, to live his Gospel and to allow the grace of the Holy Eucharist to refashion us in the likeness of God which we had lost through sin, and which is daily obscured by our perseverance therein. God has a continual remedy for our continual failures, but we may not take his grace for granted, lest we share the fate of that lazy servant who “begins to…eat and drink and get drunk,” thinking his Master is a long way off, and that his accountability can be postponed. But the Master suddenly shows up and catches him in the act of his unfaithfulness and punishes him severely.

So let us be faithful stewards of the gifts of God, whether they be food, clothing, and shelter, love and friendship, protection from visible and invisible enemies, the gifts of grace in the sacraments and scriptures and in prayer, and the hope of eternal life. Let us receive all in a spirit of humility and gratitude, and with a responsible resolve to be good to others as God has been good to us. And remember, as we pray in every Liturgy, that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming from the Father” (James 1:17), so in seeking first his Kingdom we receive everything we need, in this age and in the age of glory to come.