Thanksgiving Gratitude—The Key to Opening the Narrow Gate!

Decorative ImageThanksgiving 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.

Now, while Thanksgiving is a North American holiday that we celebrate here in Canada this weekend, it is perhaps more importantly a Christian way of life. As we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday here this weekend, it is perhaps worth talking time to reflect that Thanksgiving is the way that you and I are called to live everyday as Christians. We are reminded of this every time that we come to Mass to celebrate the Eucharist.

The word “Eucharist” itself has its origins in the Greek word “ευχαριστία,” which means “to give thanks.” When you and I gather to celebrate Mass, we are gathering to give thanks to God for all that He has done for us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The Eucharist is the memorial sacrifice and meal that Christ has left us to remember His saving work and to encounter His presence in our lives today. This why, when we begin the Eucharistic Prayer, in the introductory dialogue at the beginning of the preface, we are invited to give thanks to the Lord through the invitation of the celebrant who says: “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.” To which we respond: “It is right and just.” As we recall that Christ, the Son of God died for us, so that we might have eternal life, we are called to gratitude and to respond to what He has done for us through a life of joyful thanksgiving.At the beginning of this reflection, I spoke about how our civil celebration of thanksgiving was a way of giving thanks for all of the things that we enjoy here in Canada. I would like to reflect upon the similarities between this Thanksgiving and what we do at Mass every Sunday.An essential part of our celebration of the Mass is to remember what Christ did for us. We remember God’s works of salvation by reading the Scriptures and by remembering the saving works of Christ in the re-enactment of the memorial supper which He left us on Holy Thursday. This remembering of what He has done for us ought to be the reason for our desiring to be at the Eucharist and the source of our gratitude. This aspect of our remembering has the Greek name of “αναμνησία” (“anamnesis”), which means “to remember.”

However, by the miracle of the Sacrament of the Eucharist and by the working of the Holy Spirit, you and I are not just called to remember what Christ did for us: We are actually invited to encounter Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. At the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit is called down upon the bread and the wine so that it might become Christ’s Body and Blood. The words of the Third Eucharistic Prayer state: “By the same Spirit graciously make holy these gifts that we have brought to you for consecration, that they may become the Body and +Blood of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ.” At the Eucharist, we not only remember what Christ has done for us, we actually receive Him in the sacrifice He has left us and are configured into His Body the Church. The change that the Eucharist is intended to bring about in all of us is also expressed in another calling forth of the Holy Spirit that is found in the Third Eucharistic Prayer, which asks that we “who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.” As Christians, we are called to be grateful, not just for what Christ has done for us in the past, but also because of what He continues to do for us today through His Church, Word and Sacrament. The response of the Christian is to live in gratitude and thanksgiving for all that God has done for us. This calling down of the Holy Spirit, which makes Christ’s Body and Blood present and configures us into members of Christ’s Body the Church is called the “ἐπίκλησις” (“epiclesis”), which means invocation or the calling forth of the Holy Spirit. In the liturgy, this action is symbolized by the priestly extension of hands over the gifts.

Because Christ continues to share His life and saving work with us in the liturgy, you and I are called to live our lives responding to God’s generosity towards us. This means that we are called to praise and glorify him in our actions. This is a call to live our lives in thanksgiving. One of the words that has been used recently in our Archdiocese to reflect the kind of thanksgiving we are called to render to God is “stewardship.” The gratitude called for in stewardship, invites us to recognize that everything that we have is a gift from God. In gratitude for these gifts, we are called to respond by sharing from what we have received of our time, talent and treasure. Many of us are used to giving of our treasure through financial support; but our churches, communities and families also require that people share generously of their time and talent. This is perhaps truer now in this time of pandemic than it ever has been. This aspect of giving praise and glory to God is expressed at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer in the words that are said at what is known as the “great elevation.” As the Body and Blood of Christ are held up for our adoration, these words are said: “Through Him, with Him, and in Him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever.” Known as the “doxology,” from the Greek word “δοξολογία,” it means “to give praise” As a result of our remembering what Christ has done for us, and encountering Him again in the Eucharist, we are called to give glory and praise to Him by living our lives in thanksgiving for all that Christ has done for us.

All of the readings this Sunday speak of a special kind of wisdom that can be received only as a gift from God. The First Reading from the Book of Wisdom says that once this is received we understand that: “All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands [are] uncounted wealth” (Wisdom 7:11). For the Psalmist, once this wisdom is received, the individual understands that he or she has been filled with God’s love and desires to sing with joy (Psalm 90). In our Second Reading, we hear how essential Scripture can be for all of us in coming to the true wisdom of God. Scripture reveals to each of us the truth about who we are and the source of all that we have received (Hebrews 4:12-13). For those of us who allow Scripture to truly penetrate our hearts, Scripture reveals to us that we are nothing without God and that everything we have is from Him. He is our creator and everything is gift.

The fact that we are God’s creatures, and everything that we have received is a gift, is a point that the rich young man, in today’s Gospel from Mark (Mark 10: 17-30), does not understand. This rich young man came to Jesus to ask what he must do to inherit eternal life. He thinks salvation is something that he can earn. When Jesus speaks to this rich young man about what is necessary, he boasts of his great faithfulness in keeping the commandments. It is almost as if he is hoping that Jesus will validate his claim to be worthy of salvation. The rich young man comes pridefully before the Lord believing that as a result of his own goodness he is deserving of salvation. Jesus’ challenges him to understand that all he has is a gift from God and that he ought not to cling to his possessions as though they were his. Like all of us, he will one day have to hand them back to God, and on to others, if he wishes to enter the Kingdom. As the rich young man hears that he must let go of his possessions in order to embrace God, he is filled with a sadness that he will not be able to follow the Lord. He leaves the Lord to be with his possessions and his pride in what he has accomplished.

Those who witness Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man are shocked at the harshness of Christ’s words towards this man seeking eternal life. They are shocked by Christ’s words: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). This reference that Christ makes to the “eye of the needle,” refers to a gate in the wall of the city of Jerusalem that was so small it had this name. If a camel was to pass through it, it would have to be unloaded of all its possessions and even bend down in order to pass through. In order for any of us to follow Christ to Heaven, we too must be willing to let go of all our possessions and bow before the reality that everything we have and are is a gift from God. Salvation requires the wisdom of acknowledging that none of us can earn salvation or buy it with our possessions. Salvation is a gift from God. It cannot be earned. This is why Jesus tells the disciples: “For humans it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” In order to receive the gift of salvation, we must recognize it is a gift from God that we are to receive with empty and open hands. The hands that pridefully cling to the possessions and accomplishments of this world, which are of themselves gifts from God, will not be able to receive the greatest gift of all—the gift of eternal salvation. The key to passing through the eye of the needle, to enter into salvation, is recognizing that everything we have and are is a gift from God and heeding Christ’s call to follow after Him with the freedom of thanksgiving and gratitude.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, the Sunday readings call us to seek that wisdom which only God can give. That wisdom is to be found in the Scriptures which tell us from beginning to end of God’s generosity and love. In the Scriptures we read that God created everything out of nothing. The Bible tells us of all that God has done to save us. In the Gospels we hear how Christ came into our midst to save us from our sins and lead us to eternal life. All that God has done for us should lead us to understand that all of life is a gift and the only way to respond is through thanksgiving and gratitude. If we cling to what we are and have as though it was our own accomplishment, we cannot pass through the eye of the needle to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. If we accept that all of life is a gift from God and freely raise our empty hands in thanksgiving and gratitude to praise God, then He, for whom all things are possible, will fill our open hands with His love and salvation.

May this Thanksgiving lead all of us to understand that all we have is a gift from God that we might open our hearts to praise Him and receive the ultimate gift of salvation.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your families.

Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor, St. Peter’s Parish—Toronto, Ontario.

This reflection based on the readings from the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90; Hebrews 4: 12-13: and Mark 10:17-30).