Thanking God Always and Everywhere: Our Sweet Duty and Our Salvation, Thanksgiving Day Mass, November 27, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Thanksgiving Day
November 27, 2014
Is 63:7-9, Ps 138, Col 3:12-17, Lk 17:11-19

 

To listen to an audio homily of today’s Mass, please click below: 

 

 

The following text guided the homily: 

“It is right and just”

One of the most important dialogues in human life occurs at Mass. The priest says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” Everyone responds, “It is right and just.” And then the priest replies with a saying of great theological depth: “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, Holy Father, almighty and ever-living God.”

It’s right, it’s just, it’s fitting, it’s appropriate for us to give God thanks, “always and everywhere.” It’s right, just, fitting and appropriate for us to do so on sunny days and rainy days, on days we feel like a million bucks and days we’re in the hospital, on days when we’re attending weddings and days we’re attending funerals of loved ones, on days when we get promotions and bonuses at work and days we get pink slips, on days when we win and on days that we lose. It’s right and just to thank God always and everywhere. It’s our duty to thank God because he has given us everything, what the world considers good and what the world considers bad, but which we know as Catholics are for our spiritual good, for “everything works out for the good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28).

That’s why Sacred Scripture is replete with summons to thanksgiving. The Old Testament is full of gratitude like we heard in today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah. With him, we say, “The favors of the Lord I will recall, the glorious deeds of the Lord I will sing, because of all he has done for us, … according to his mercy and great kindness.” So many of the Psalms remind us to give thanks to the Lord for he his good and his love endures forever, as we prayed today in Psalm 138, “I thank you, Lord, with all my heart, … for your faithfulness and love.” St. Paul’s letters constantly remind us of his thanksgiving to God for all God has done in Christ for him and for us. He gives us the constant summons “never to cease giving thanks” (Eph 1:16), telling us in today’s epistle, “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17) and reminding us in the Alleluia verse, “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:18). All of life, whatever we do, is an opportunity to thank God. Our vocation, the meaning of our life our earth, is for us to thank God “in all circumstances,” St. Paul says

The indispensable receptivity to the gift of salvation

But the Preface Dialogue goes beyond just telling us that it is right, just and responsible to thank God “always and everywhere.” It also tells us that it is our “salvation” to do so. We cannot be saved unless we are grateful to God because unless we’re filled with a spirit of gratitude we will not be open to receive the help God constantly wants to give us on earth in order to receive the gift of salvation and become ever more secure in it. That’s the lesson Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel in which we ponder the healing of the ten lepers. All ten were cured of a disease that had been eating away their flesh and bones, that had made them stink, that had made them the worst of outcasts and forced them to stay at least 50 feet away from any non-leper. It had compelled them at all times to yell out “unclean!, unclean!,” anytime someone was approaching. It cut them off from their family members. It also cut them off from the communal worship of God as they could never return to the Synagogue on Saturday or to the Temple on the major holy days. But at their cry for mercy, Jesus healed them all and sent them to the priests, which was the means set up in the Mosaic Law for their cure to be verified, that the disease had stopped growing and they were no longer contagious. But the text of St. Luke implies that as they were heading to the priest, they were completely cured, that they no longer had their leprous sores, that their bodies had been made whole again. After recognizing that the miracle for which they had prayed and long for had been granted, we would have expected that all of them would have been rejoicing almost as if they had been raised from the dead. But only one of the ten returned to thank the Lord Jesus who had given them this gift. Jesus poignantly asks, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?”

Jesus wished them all to return not because he had worked the miracle with impure motives to get them to thank him, but so that he might give them an even greater gift than the stupendous physical cure. He wanted to give them all what he gave the Samaritan who returned, the grace of salvation by faith. After the healed man fell down at his feet to thank him with all his heart, Jesus told him, “Stand up and go. Your faith has saved you!” Jesus had come into the world not fundamentally to heal our bodies but to heal our souls. He gave not to remedy our ills but to redeem our lives. In order to receive these greater gifts, however, we need gratefully to be in relationship with God. While all ten men were cured of the physical leprosy, nine retained leprosy of the soul, an ingratitude that took for granted the greatest gift they had received in life until then. Only the grateful leper would receive the gift of salvation because only he had a heart that was opened to receive it. The other nine didn’t and Jesus made note of it, saying, “Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?.” The other nine lepers were presumably Jews and Jesus was implying that it was shocking that only the Samaritan returned because the Jews had been trained by God for centuries in the prayers of the Psalms and in the incredible events of salvation history to give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his mercy endures forever. If anyone should have learned how to say thanks to God, it should have been the Jews. But many of them took God’s generosity, God’s goodness, for granted. The other nine likely looked at their disease with anger toward God, as if he had somehow sadistically them him out for unjust punishment such that when they were cured they looked at it the way people might view getting released from an unkind kidnapper: they would be grateful for the liberation but they likely wouldn’t send a thank-you note to the one who had held them in captivity. But the Samarian, even though his body had been disintegrating, his soul hadn’t been destroyed by leprosy of bitterness, complaining, cursing, or ingratitude. His fundamental relationship with God was still there. He likely thanked God for all the little things he received from his hands, like the generosity of people who would provide food, or give a kind word of compassion. And when he received the big grace of his cure, he did what he probably always did, and immediately sought to thank the Giver. And he likely grew to thank God even for his years of leprosy, because if he hadn’t been a leper, he may never have encountered Jesus the way he did and never would have received the gift of salvation by faith.

What the Pilgrims teach us about gratitude in hardship

That lesson of gratitude even for difficulties in order to open us up to God’s greater blessings is something we learn from the Pilgrims whose institution of this feast almost 400 years ago inspires the civic basis of our national celebration today. The first Thanksgiving happened only 37 miles from here and when we look at what had happened in the pilgrims’ first year here, the last thing they should have been doing, according to human logic, would have been throwing a feast to thank God. Of the 103 that disembarked from the Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor in December 1620, more than half would die before winter was over. Their Governor died. Ten of the seventeen husbands and fathers died. Fourteen of their seventeen wives also perished. Those who avoided the grave remained in grave danger because of fevers, famine and freezing temperatures. The fifty-one survivors easily could have looked at the previous eleven months as the worst year of their life. They had buried almost as many bodies in the soil, after all, as bushels of food they had taken from the soil. The reason they were able to thank God so heartily, however, in spite of the suffering they had endured was because they believed those hardships and blessings were both part of God’s providential care. No amount of personal suffering could shake their faith. No amount of hardship could rock their trust in a God whom they knew loved them, was looking over them and had sent them help. They convened full of gratitude because they realized they were on a pilgrimage not only to Plymouth but to Paradise. Everything — adverse or propitious, life and even death — was part of God’s plans for them on their journey not merely to the new world but to a New Jerusalem. That final destination, and their faith in the God who awaited them, were what gave meaning to all their sufferings and joys along the way. And it’s what filled them with a spirit of gratitude.

Today as we convene to express our gratitude to God at the beginning of our daylong Thanksgiving celebration, some of us might feel like we’ve had a year similar to what the surviving pilgrims did from 1620-1621. We may have experienced lots of personal set backs in terms of work, school, or health, we may be nursing wounds from broken hearts and relationships with loved ones, we may be celebrating Thanksgiving without the presence of someone we love who may have died in the last year, be in circumstances in which the person can’t make it or didn’t prioritize it. We may be suffering economically and have some concerns about what lies ahead. But today is a day on which, like the pilgrims, we come to thank God for everything, because it is right, always and everywhere to give him thanks and praise, knowing that it is precisely through this gratitude that God wants to lead us, through good times and bad, through sickness and health, through poverty and prosperity, to salvation — and sometimes God knows that it’s only through bad times, sickness, and poverty, through deprivation and suffering, that we’ll ever become thankful for what we have, because without those difficulties, sometimes we end up taking all of his blessings for granted and closing ourselves off to the greatest blessings of all that he never seeks to want to bestow on us.

How to grow in the spirit of Thanksgiving

It’s important for each of us to ask today how to grow in a spirit of thanksgiving. The whole point of this national holiday is not just so that we can stop what we’re doing and express our gratitude to God and to others as a community. It’s also because if we didn’t have a day many of us would never stop to thank God. I’d like to focus on three things God wants to help us to learn to do, in order of increasing difficulty.

Prayer of Thanksgiving

The first thing is regularly to pray in thanksgiving to God. The Catechism teaches us that there are various “forms” of prayer. Many of us think that there’s only one real form of prayer, namely to ask God for things, for ourselves (normally called petition) or for others (normally called intercession). God obviously wants us to turn to him with confidence as his beloved sons and daughters and ask him for what we need, but there’s much to prayer than this. Some of us also aware of prayers of contrition in which we converse with God about how sorry we are for our sins and the sins of others. We do that at the beginning of every Mass when we turn to him and ask for his forgiveness for the ways “I have sinned in my thoughts, in my deeds, in what I have done and what I have failed to do… through my most grievous fault,” and we beg him, “Lord have mercy!” Sometimes, I wonder though, how many of us are really praying that prayer, how many of us believe, “I have greatly sinned,” how many of us really recognize we’re desperate for his merciful love. There’s also the most important form of prayer of all, which is prayer of “praise” or “adoration” or “blessing,” in which, essentially, we converse with God about how good he is, how lovable he is, and keep our focus entirely on him rather than on ourselves, our needs, our failings. One of the reasons why I’m always encouraging people to sign up to come to adoration is precisely so that people can have an opportunity to learn how to praise and adore God for who he is, rather than just turn to him when they need him. But the Catechism describes a fourth form of prayer, which is thanksgiving, when we turn to God expressing our gratitude for everything he has done for us, everything he has given us. To be grateful, we need regularly to being thanking God in our prayer, thanking him for the gift of our life, thanking him for the gift of our health, thanking him for the gift of our family members and friends, thanking him for the gift of our faith, thanking him for the gift of our parish, thanking him for the gift of our job, thanking him for the gift of our house, thanking him for so many things. I often encourage those who come to see me struggling with problems of complaining, or envy, or bitterness to spend ten minutes a day in prayer of Thanksgiving to God. Sometimes they’ve asked me, “But what will I say for ten minutes a day?,” and I encourage them, “Just start with your right hand and you’ll find 25 things for which to thank God that you ordinarily take for granted,” you have all five of your nails, all of your carpals and metacarpals work, all of your ligaments work, you have coordination such that you can eat, drive, type, shake hands, and do so much more, that you don’t have arthritis or at least don’t have it as badly as you might, that you don’t have leprosy or other skin diseases, and so many other things that can listed. One of the most important paths to joy is to be filled with gratitude. Today in a special way I’d encourage everyone to take ten minutes today and list out so many blessings that God has given and thank God for each and every one of them. The more we do this, the more we open ourselves to recognizing and receiving so much more.

Overcoming our spiritual consumerism, which robs us of the spirit of thanksgiving

The second practice is more challenging. It’s to get over our spiritual consumerism, our constantly giving in to the temptation to obsess about what we don’t have rather than to thank God for what we do. Many of us relate to God not with gratitude but with resentment. Some of us have a sense of divine entitlement in which we believe that God “owes” us every good thing he’s given to anyone else, and if we don’t have what someone else then “obviously” it’s a sign that God doesn’t love us. Some of us can be spiritual spoiled brats, never satisfied and never really thanking God but always approaching him with an attitude, “What have you done for me lately?” I think it’s worse for us here in New England than in most places, something that we see in the way we approach our sports teams. If the Patriots don’t win the Super Bowl this year, many of us will think that they’ve failed, that they’re a bunch of losers even if they win the AFC Championship. If the Red Sox win 100 games next year but don’t win the World Series, many of us will think that John Henry just “wasted” $183 million this week signing two new players and we’ll be calling for Ben Cherington’s head on a platter. You know I’m right! And this type of attitude affects far more than our hobbies. In life in general, even if everything is going “fine” we can complain that it’s not going great. Even though we have what we need, we’re get possessed by a desire for something newer, faster, bigger. We covet and get upset over the blessings of others rather than rejoice with them and rejoice over the blessings we ourselves have. Pope Francis says that this is one of the consequences of a culture of consumerism and the ferocious idolatry of money and things. We’re trained by our culture, by all our advertisements, that we’re never going to be happy unless we get the latest smart phone, or car, or clothing, or performance pill. We see this consumerism on full display seeking to invade even our Thanksgiving Feast. Many people will leave their Thanksgiving celebrations early in order to go wait in line for hours to be the first into the stores on “Black Friday,” as if their real happiness is not in extra time with their family members but in being one of the first to get the “deal” on whatever they’ve set their heart this year, something for themselves or for someone else that will probably give momentary pleasure but something that will have faded by the time the 12 days of Christmas are over. There’s a different way. It’s to be grateful for what God has given us. It’s to recognize that God regularly provides all we really need — food, clothing, housing — and all the rest is really never as important as we think it is. It’s to start desiring the things that really matter — God’s kingdom, God’s glory, God’s name to be hallowed, God’s will to be done — rather than building up for ourselves an earthly kingdom that we can never take with us when we go. It’s to grasp that our definitive happiness will never be found in money, in happiness, in sports teams, even in other people, but only in God.

Learning to thank God even for the Crosses

The third practice is the hardest of all: it’s to learn how to handle setbacks with gratitude, to grasp how to thank God even for the things that the world considers curses. Most of us, rather than being grateful for Crosses, we moan them. And the reason for this is, frankly, we give too much of our heart to the things of this world, to our health, to our this-worldly contentment, to everyone liking us, even to our life here on earth. To become people capable of thanking God always and everywhere, we need to recognize that God is “always and everywhere” blessing us, sometimes even with hardship and the Cross. Like with the leper, he might allow us to contract a terrible disease in order for us finally to go to confession to the chaplain in the hospital or finally to have a family member reconcile with us. He may have us not get a job, or to lose a championship game, or to fail a test for us to grasp that we have been taking so many of his gifts for granted and come to a deeper relationship with him. We need to learn to thank him for everything, for he seeks to use all things, adverse and propitious, to sculpt us more and more into the image of his Son. When we learn to thank God for the Crosses and the difficulties, then it will be possible for us to thank him in all circumstances.

One great teacher in how to do this is our patroness, St. Bernadette. I want to share her with you her “testament of gratitude,” written before she died, in which she expressed what she was grateful for. What she says may shock us. It would have been easy for her to have counted her obvious blessings, especially the gift of Our Lady’s choosing her to receive her visits, or her Christian vocation that allowed her so many times to meet Christ in prayer and the Sacraments, or for the gift of her religious vocation to be a bride of Christ, or for the time that the Lord healed her of an illness that put her on her death bed very young. But she didn’t thank God for those blessings, but for blessings that most in the world wouldn’t notice. She was able to express gratitude for these precisely because she was focused on salvation, on heaven, and on how God was using these even greater blessings to make her fit for heaven, for the happiness that Mary said she couldn’t promise her in this world but would guarantee in the next. As we listen to this Litany of gratitude, let’s ask St. Bernadette for the grace to be able to convert into gratitude some of the harder experiences God has allowed us to endure, so that out of those difficulties, he may strengthen our salvation. St. Bernadette wrote:

  • “For the poverty in which my mother and father lived, for the fact that everything failed for us, for the collapse of the mill, for the fact that I had to look after the children whom I was feeding too much and for the dirty noses of the children, for the fact that I had to guard the sheep, for the constant tiredness, thank you, my God!”
  • “Thank you, my God, for the prosecutor and the police commissioner, for the policemen, and for the harsh words of Father Peyramale!”
  • “For the days in which you came, Mary, for the ones in which you did not come, I will never be able to thank you…only in Paradise.”
  • “For the slaps in the face, for the ridicule, the insults, for those who thought I was crazy, those who suspect me of lying, those who suspected me of wanting to gain something from it, thank you, my Lady.”
  • “For my spelling, which I never learned, for the memory that I never had, for my ignorance and for my stupidity, thank you. Thank you, because if there had been a more ignorant, stupid child on earth, you would have chosen her.”
  • “For the fact that my mother died so far away, for the pain I felt when my father, instead of hugging his little Bernadette, called me, “Sister Marie-Bernard”, I thank you, Jesus.”
  • “I thank you for the heart you gave me, so delicate and sensitive, which you filled with bitterness.”
  • “For the fact that Mother Josephine proclaimed that I was good for nothing, thank you. For the sarcasm of the Mother Superior: her harsh voice, her injustices, her irony and for the bread of humiliation, thank you.”
  • “Thank you that I was the privileged one when it came to be reprimanded, so that my sisters said, ‘How lucky it is not to be Bernadette.’”
  • “Thank you that I was the Bernadette threatened with imprisonment because she had seen you, Holy Virgin.”
  • “Thank you that I was that Bernadette who was so frail and worthless that when people saw her, they said to themselves, ‘That must be her,’ the Bernadette that people looked at as if she were an unusual animal.”
  • “For this miserable body that you gave me, for this illness that burns like fire and smoke, for my decaying bones, for my perspiration and fever, for my dull and acute pain, thank you, my God.”
  • “And for this soul which you have given me, for the desert of inner dryness, for your nights and your flashes of lightening, for your silence and your thunders, for everything. For you-when you were present and when you were not—thank you, Jesus.”

That really is a “Testimony of Gratitude” of a saint and gives evidence as to why she was a saint. It might be tempting for us to think that these words were given sarcastically, that her Testimony was really one of bitterness and complaint, but St. Bernadette was one of the most sincere saints in history. She really meant every word. She really was grateful because she saw that through all of these Crosses, big and small, God helped her to place her heart more and more in Him, to desire him more, to long for him forever. She grasped that even in all of these circumstances, it was right and just, her duty and her salvation, to thank God. And she’s interceding for us now to learn how to do the same.

A sweet duty or just a civic observation? 

And so today we ought to ask ourselves: Do we have that same spirit of Thanksgiving that marked the grateful leper, the Pilgrims who had survived and St. Bernadette? If this weren’t a national holiday on our civic calendar, would we on our own want to organize a big feast of our family members and friends just to thank God for everything over the course of the last year? Are we just going through a civic ritual involving turkey and gravy, stuffing and turnip, family and football, or do we approach this day with a hearts and souls bursting with thanks to God and to others for all of the blessings we have received, including the crosses and hardships? If we don’t yet really have the spirit of thanksgiving, we come here to the Lord with our prayer of petition to help us, like he helped St. Bernadette, to learn how to thank him for everything.

God’s training ground of gratitude

And the school he gives us to learn this gift are not the lepers’ colonies of Palestine, or the woods of Plymouth, or the Grotto of Massabielle and the Sisters of Charity Convent in Nevers. It’s St. Bernadette Parish and most specifically it’s the Mass. The Mass is a school of Thanksgiving, where we are trained how to give thanks to God always and everywhere as the right thing to do, as a duty of justice, and as the path to salvation.

It’s highly significant that when the first Christians described what they were doing when they got together to “do this in memory” of the Lord, they didn’t called it the celebration of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. They didn’t call it the Feast of the Lord’s Supper or the Banquet of the Lamb. They called it the Eucharist, from the Greek word, Eucaristein, which means thanksgiving. Every time they came together for Mass, it was Thanksgiving Day. It was Thanksgiving during the times of growth and peace. It was Thanksgiving during the times of persecution. But their fundamental approach to the Mass was that it was the greatest way possible for them to thank God for the gift of life, to thank God for so many blessings of family and friends, to thank God for the gift of the Christian faith and the new life and family they had received in baptism, and to thank God for the gift of salvation.

The early Christians saw what they were doing as entering into Jesus’ own prayer of Thanksgiving to the Father. To enter into Jesus’ prayer is to become filled with a spirit of Thanksgiving. Jesus’ prayers were always marked by gratitude. He thanked the Father before the multiplication of the loaves and fish. He thanked the Father for revealing his wisdom to the merest of children instead of to the clever and proud of the world. He thanked the Father before the resuscitation of Lazarus. During the Mass, he thanked the Father profusely even before he was to give his own body and blood during the Last Supper. He thanked the Father before he would be crucified because through that sacrifice he would be able to save us all out of love. The Mass is the school in which we enter into Jesus’ own thanksgiving, always and everywhere, to the Father. The Mass is our continual thanksgiving from the rising of the sun to its setting. It is a school that transforms us to be fully Christian and to be Christian is to be grateful. The Lord has done far more for us than he ever did for the ten lepers. Here at Mass he gives us in a concrete way even more than what he gave to the one grateful leper when he said, “Your faith has saved you!” This is where we receive salvation-in-the-flesh. No matter what we have experienced in this past year, no matter what hardships we’re still enduring, God comes into our world, to accompany us, to strengthen us, to heal us, to help us. He comes down here each day to save us. And so we say, “Thanks be to God!” Deo gratias! It is truly right, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give God thanks and praise! And we ask God for the grace to increase in us a spirit of thanksgiving so that we may receive a deepening of his gift of salvation and come to that eternal Thanksgiving feast in heaven where with St. Bernadette and all the saints we may have the privilege of thanking and praising him forever!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

First Reading
Is. 63:7 The favors of the LORD I will recall, the glorious deeds of the LORD, Because of all he has done for us; for he is good to the house of Israel, He has favored us according to his mercy and his great kindness.  8 He said: They are indeed my people, children who are not disloyal; So he became their savior 9 in their every affliction. It was not a messenger or an angel, but he himself who saved them. Because of his love and pity he redeemed them himself, Lifting them and carrying them all the days of old.

Psalm — “Lord, I thank you for your faithfulness and love”
Psa. 138:1 Of David. I thank you, LORD, with all my heart; before the gods to you I sing.  2 I bow low toward your holy temple; I praise your name for your fidelity and love. For you have exalted over all your name and your promise.  3 When I cried out, you answered; you strengthened my spirit.  4 All the kings of earth will praise you, LORD, when they hear the words of your mouth.  5 They will sing of the ways of the LORD: “How great is the glory of the LORD!”  6 The LORD is on high, but cares for the lowly and knows the proud from afar.  7 Though I walk in the midst of dangers, you guard my life when my enemies rage. You stretch out your hand; your right hand saves me.  8 The LORD is with me to the end. LORD, your love endures forever. Never forsake the work of your hands!

Epistle
Col. 3:12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,  13 bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.  14 And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.  15 And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.  16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.  17 And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Gospel
Luke 17:11 As he continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.  12 As he was entering a village, ten lepers met [him]. They stood at a distance from him 13 and raised their voice, saying, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”  14 And when he saw them, he said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” As they were going they were cleansed.  15 And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;  16 and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan.  17 Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine?  18 Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”  19 Then he said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”