Thanksgiving is a North American holiday. If I remember my school lessons correctly, it derives from the experience of the first European settlers here in North America and their experience of their first few years here on this continent. The way we were taught about this holiday when I was in elementary school recalled how difficult these first Europeans found the bitter winter to survive on their own and how unprepared they were to make it through this difficult climate. They were so unprepared for the conditions they found on this continent that it was only with the help of the Indigenous People, who knew the land and the ways of growing here, that they were able to make it through those initial days. Once they had learned to grow crops in this territory and figure out how to survive the conditions on this continent, they were so grateful that they began to have a special feast called “Thanksgiving” at the end of the growing season to celebrate the goods of this land and the great opportunities that they had discovered here. From my school days, I recall a part of those initial Thanksgiving celebrations involved celebrations with the Indigenous People who had helped these first settlers to make their lives possible here. That is why so many of our celebrations still highlight the many vegetables and local products that were handed over to the Europeans by the Indigenous People to help them survive. Of course, the history of our continent also shows us that this cooperative relationship between the first European settlers and the Indigenous People did not continue for very long. After a very short period of time, the European settlers began to take the land for granted and to demand that it all be given to them. What was at first regarded as a privilege to be grateful for, soon began to be regarded as something that was owed to them and the land and the Indigenous People were exploited. The great buffalo that roamed the continent were soon extinct and the Indigenous Peoples lost their lands and were relegated to reserves across both Canada and the United States. We still hear of the tragic circumstances of this history today as we read about the high suicide rates among the young people in the Indigenous communities. This is a part of our history that still calls for much healing, truth and reconciliation.
Sadly, this is not an isolated case in the way in which we humans tend to act in our relationships. Whenever we first receive a gift, or are given some form of attention, we tend to be very grateful. However, once we have become used to the generous way in which a person or organization treat us, be begin to look upon those things as rights and to demand that they be continually available to us. When I was young my father used to travel quite a bit. Each time he would go away, he would bring my brothers and I a souvenir from the places he had visited. I imagine the first time he went away, I thanked him for what I received. However, after a few years of his generosity, I think I became so accustomed to his goodness to me that I soon started demanding my gift each time he returned home. A more serious case of this taking things for granted might be the case of an elderly man I know who came to Canada from a European country in the 1950’s after the Second World War. On the one hand, he can speak about how great his life in Canada has been for him and his family. On the other hand, I regularly receive e-mails from him advocating that no new immigrants be allowed into Canada to, as he says, “steal his pension.” In our own families, as we gather for Thanksgiving this weekend, there will be many examples of how someone will be expected to do all the work to prepare the meal and the others who gather will only take it for granted that this is the way things are supposed to be. Some might not even say thank you at the end of the meal, but rather prefer to start a fight about some long-standing family grudge. Even in our parish community, there can be some who are expected to do all the work, and a larger group who expect everything to be done for them.
It is not uncommon for this type of deficit or lack of gratitude to also creep into our faith lives, since it reflects an attitude of entitlement that is all too much a part of our human condition. Everything we have received has come to us as a gift from God. If it were not for God’s generosity we would be nothing. God loves each of us so much that at the end of our journeys here on earth, He desires that we come to spend eternal life with Him in Heaven. Despite His great generosity to us, most of us tend to base our faith relationship with God by speaking to Him and thinking of what He owes us. Sometimes we all treat God like an employee. We think God is good when He does what we tell Him. God does not get very good reviews when He does not do what we tell Him. Despite the fact that every single one of us knows that we must die and go to Heaven, when it does happen and God brings one of our loved ones to be happy with Him in Heaven for all eternity, so many people get angry at God. Some people give up on their relationship with God because He fails to do what they tell Him at the very second they command Him. I remember what Bishop Attila Mikloshazy, a teacher I had in the seminary, used to always tells us in the seminary was one of the most important lessons in the life of a Christian. He would say it involved remembering the very simple fact that: “God is God and you are not.” If we think that God is simply supposed to be a good employee who does what we tell Him to do, than in all likelihood we are always going to be ungrateful and unhappy with God.
This Sunday’s readings very appropriately address the theme of thanksgiving and the attitude of gratitude that we are called to have towards God. In the Gospel, we hear of ten lepers who approach Jesus and, in the kind of beautiful language that most of us use in prayer when we want something from God, they ask Jesus to heal them. As Jesus sends them away and asks them to show themselves to the priests in the temple, as was the custom so that they might be declared clean, only one recognizes what Jesus has done and comes back to thank Him. This number probably is not far off from the reality of how much we are often grateful for in our own lives. We probably only thank God for about 10% of what He does for us and are ungrateful and unhappy about the other 90%. The thing which the Gospel wishes to point out is that the person who came back to give thanks was not a faithful Jew, but a foreigner, a Samaritan. The gratitude shown by this individual probably stems from the fact that he did not believe he had a right to be cured, but received it from God as a gift. I have often seen this kind of faith and gratitude in a person who has become a Catholic later on in life. Some of us who grow up as Catholics can take our faith for granted and think because we go to Mass, God owes us something. However, sometimes when a person is new to the faith, he or she is so happy about meeting God and knowing God’s presence in their lives, that they have so much more enthusiasm than people who have been Catholic all their lives, and take the Eucharist so much for granted that they do not bother to prepare to receive it or come to Mass on Sunday.
If you think in your own life about the happiest people that you know, they are probably not people who have more than most of the other people that you know. What tends to be common about most happy people is that they have an attitude of gratitude. They are usually people who are able to be grateful for what they have in life, and for what God and other people do for them. If you would like to change your life, I would like to tell you an absolutely certain way to do so. Take five or ten minutes a day to sit quietly and just think about things to be grateful for each day. Even when you are having a rotten day, put the bad things out of your mind and find the things in your day to be grateful for, even if they are very small. People who do this become changed from the inside. Slowly the list of things for which they are grateful for grows longer with each day. Even in the face of the loss of a loved one, they are able to see that loss as a sign of gratitude for having known that person for a little or long time. I sometimes meet people who want to come and ask me why they are so miserable and always complaining. I try to find a gentle and kind way of telling them that the reason they are miserable and always complaining is because they are miserable and always complaining. If we take a little time to see the beauty of the universe and speak words of gratitude for it to God and others in our lives, our whole world view will slowly change and so will our lives.
One of the ways that we show thanks to God for what we have received is to give back to others through acts of charity. A sign of that is this week’s food drive for the Good Shepherd Mission. We also show our thanks by how we share our gifts and time with God and others through Stewardship. In our Archdiocese, we are asked to consider how we respond to God’s love through generously giving back to our community by acts of Stewardship and getting involved by giving our time and talent. The members of the parish’s Vocation Committee tell me that we are to give back because it is part of our baptismal call. The fact is that they are right. Gratitude for what God has given us does call each of us to give from what we have received, no matter what we call this response. Over the next few months, the Vocation Committee will be putting testimonies in the bulletin about how many of us share our time and talent with others as a response to God’s loving generosity towards us. I hope you will read these stories and think about how you can share your gifts and talents with our community and others. Thanksgiving always calls us to share from what God has given us. Thanksgiving is a call to Stewardship!
In the first reading from the Book of Kings, Naaman the leper is asked to do something very simple by Elisha in order that he might be healed. He is asked to go wash in the waters of the Jordan River seven times. At first, he does not wish to do so because it seems to be too simple a request and he thinks there are much better waters in Syria. Finally, he does what is asked of him and he is healed. This is what leads him to faith in the God of Israel. As Christians, God asks very little of us. Jesus gave us the memorial of the Eucharist to remember that He saved us by His death and resurrection. All He asks of us each week, is that on Sunday, the day He saved us and won eternal life for us we give thanks to Him by celebrating the Eucharist. This word itself simply means “thanksgiving.” In doing this, we are to grow in thanksgiving and an awareness of God’s great love for us and so deepen in our ability to love God and our neighbour as our self. Thanksgiving and these beautiful readings about giving thanks, are a wonderful time to reflect on how well we are doing at truly giving thanks to God, our family, our friends, parish and our country for all that we have. For any who find themselves unhappy at this time of year, it is probably not because of anything they are lacking. Unhappiness tends to come from taking what we have for granted, wanting things other than what we have, and not seeing the hand of God in our present circumstances. Happiness always comes to those who are grateful and share their time and talent through appropriate Stewardship.
On this Thanksgiving weekend, perhaps each of us could take a few minutes to thank God for all that we have, to thank our families and friends for the gift that they are, and to particularly say thank you to the person who provides the Thanksgiving dinner. Starting to foster an attitude of gratitude on this Thanksgiving weekend, could be the beginning of an attitude that could change the lives of each person who makes it a pattern for their lives and relationship with God and others.
I would like to thank all of you for all you do for this parish and for allowing me to be your parish priest. I know these past few years as the parish has gone from several priests, after the departure of the Paulists, to one have been difficult for many. Stewardship invites all of us to be grateful to God for what he has done in and through our community and discern how we can share our gifts and talents to keep this wonderful community vibrant and active.
Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor— St. Peter’s Parish, Toronto