Thanksgiving is still away off but it will be here quickly as the weeks go by. It is a great holiday were all peoples of all faiths can join together to express our gratitude for all that we have. Today we are reminded that thanksgiving is not a one-day-a-year holiday but an exercise that can help us become more fully human.
From our earliest days we are encouraged to recognize those things we are grateful for and to offer thanks. Many times parents will take this approach in teaching their children how to pray before going to bed so that thanksgiving is in integral part of prayer.
St. Ignatius of Loyola formalized the routine in his Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises place great importance on the examen. Here something that might have had its roots in the simple prayer of a child now is matured into a developed and reflective practice. The examen is a prayerful reflection on the events of the day seeking to detect God’s presence and to discern the direction he is leading us. A critical element of the examen is the review of the day with gratitude. In other words, to “Count our blessings.”
Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough conducted a study on giving thanks from a scientific perspective. The study, “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-being in Daily Life,” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2003. It found that identifying and offering thanks for the blessings in one’s life brings with it a higher quality of life by strengthening social bonds and friendships as an expression of love. It builds and strengthens a sense of spirituality, and “it broadens the scope of cognition and enables flexible and creative thinking, it also facilitates coping with stress and adversity…. gratitude not only makes people feel good in the present, but it also increases the likelihood that people will function optimally and feel good in the future.”
Thanksgiving is an integral part of Christian life. The word “Eucharist” is a Greek word meaning “thanks.” So it seems that gratitude is one of those fundamental elements of faith and life.
The topic comes up in today’s readings. The Gospel account recalls Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers. Leprosy was a horrendous disease that damaged the body by eating away the flesh. The resulting sores were painful on both a physical and psychological level. Added to this was the social ostracism. The person with the disease is quarantined or branded so as to keep them from interacting with other persons. So the miracle that Jesus performed was life-restoring on many levels.
It was a “huge” gift to be cured by Jesus. After Jesus cured the ten, only one came back to thank him. That’s 10%, not too good from a numerical perspective. Jesus extols the one who did come back saying: “Stand up and go. Your faith has saved you.” Another interesting point brought out in the passage is that the man who came back to offer thanks was a Samaritan. You may recall from other scriptural accounts that the Jews and Samaritans were enemies. Here as in the story of the Good Samaritan and the woman at the well, the one who did the right thing is the foreigner, the supposed enemy. Jesus raises the question: “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” One aspect of the story is that its very easy to forget to be thankful, to have the “attitude of gratitude.”
We see in the first reading from II Kings, another foreigner, Naaman the Syrian, returning to Elisha to give thanks for his healing of leprosy. Recall how skeptical Naaman was at first, but he took the leap of faith and did as Elisha told him. Now healed, he demonstrates his appreciation and gratitude saying: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel. Please accept a gift from your servant.” Elisha will not accept it as though the gratitude for healing should be directed to him not God. Naaman then says: “If you will not accept, please let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth, for I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to the LORD.” In other words, His thanksgiving and praise of the God of Israel will continue when he goes home to Syria. Not only is his body healed and strengthened but through thanksgiving and praise, his soul.
St. Paul, in the Second Letter to Timothy, gives us a witness of thanksgiving by the way he lives, particularly in the sufferings he is undergoing. Though the word “thanksgiving” or its associates are not used, his act of praise is itself a thanksgiving. He acknowledges that he has been saved from death through Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. He bears his sufferings in gratitude and confidence, urging us to do the same for “if we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him.”
Thanksgiving is an integral part of life. As human beings we have the ability to recognize the blessings that are a daily part of life. These blessings all have their root in God, the source of all good. The blessing of life and salvation come from God. The study mentioned above, gives witness that the act of thanksgiving is itself beneficial to us and makes our lives richer and fuller. It calls to mind the words of one of the prefaces for daily mass which reads: “For although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving itself is your gift, since our praises add nothing to your greatness but profit us for salvation through Christ our Lord.” (Common Preface IV) So “let us praise the Lord, and give him thanks.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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