To be grateful is to be holy
When visiting in other countries, it is polite and helpful to learn a few basic words and phrases in the local language. Yes and no, hello and farewell, please and thank-you, I would like…, what is the cost of…?, where is the bathroom? — these are just the bare beginning of what can be useful in another place.
Among the very first things we teach children who are learning to speak and to interact with their world is the importance of saying “please” and “thank-you.” If children ask for something without first saying “please,” we ask them, “What do you say when you want something?” and we won’t give them what they want until they say the “magic word.” And right after they get what they asked for, we ask them, “Now what do you say?” And of course, we expect the appropriate answer.
Please, then thank-you. This is the way we were taught to interact with each other as soon as we started to speak. So it is no surprise that this is how we relate to God. We ask for what we want, and then thank God for having received it. Yet, like small children, how frequently we forget the thank-you part when it comes to God! All of us fail from time to time in our expression of gratitude to God for the many signs of care and love we are given by the Lord. Perhaps we can be helped by looking at our relationship with God a bit differently than how we relate to one another.
With each other we ask before we thank; with God, we need to thank before we ask. We do this every time we celebrate Eucharist. Indeed, the very word Eucharist in the original Greek ευχαριστία means “thanksgiving.” So every Mass is Thanksgiving! And this model for our relationship with God and all God has done is rooted in this dynamic – we thank, then we ask.
In many African-American congregations, it is customary for the priest at Mass to ask of an elder or council of elders permission to begin worship or to preach to the assembly. It is a wonderful reminder that the leader of the prayer is first a servant of the community whose authority comes from the people to whom he is responsible. A form of that conversation between priest and congregation takes place at every Mass, right at the very beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. Before we sing the great Sanctus and kneel down for the extended prayer, there is a quick but crucial back-and-forth between the priest and congregation called the “Preface Dialogue.” This is the familiar and very brief three-part, six-line conversation that concludes with the priest saying, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” to which the people respond “It is right and just.” This little dialogue is, in fact, the very first section of the whole Eucharistic Prayer! Imagine, the highest form of prayer offered by the People of God begins with a conversation about what we are about to do.
Think of it as a kind of permission being asked by the priest. “Let us give thanks” is almost a kind of question. “Are we ready to give thanks?” It’s as if to say, hang on to your seats because we are about to do something awesome and eternal and powerful – are you all ready? The response of the people, “It is right and just,” is like saying, “Alright, let’s go! Let’s do this! It is the best and most right and proper thing we can imagine!”
But what if someone were to be hesitant, not so sure about whether they were ready to give thanks, or even worse – certain that they were in fact not very grateful at all? Would we really be having Eucharist then? What if that less-than-grateful person were you? Can your own ungratefulness become a heavyweight or obstacle to others as they stand before the God whose gracious goodness they are ready to praise?
Perhaps we are only accustomed to expressing gratitude only when everything seems to be going our way. I am healthy and have good friends, a comfortable home, regular meals, satisfying work, loving family, and some social status – thank you, Lord. But can I be grateful to God when I am ill, lonely, poorly sheltered, hungry, underemployed, orphaned, or marginalized? Again we turn to the Eucharistic prayers where, after the Preface proclaims the greatness of God in all that has been done for us and joins our prayers to the prayers of the entire cosmos, we plunge immediately into the sacred words which remind us that the Table of Plenty is also the Altar of Sacrifice. God’s generous abundance is revealed precisely by drawing into the eternal and ongoing mystery of the Paschal Mystery – a mystery of a God who suffers with us so as to draw our own suffering into the Divine Heart whose love is as deep as eternity.
Within this embrace, we are most closely united to each other and to God. We discover anew that the cause of our gratitude, our thanksgiving, our ευχαριστία is found precisely in our capacity to empty ourselves – or, more accurately, to invite God to empty us – into a compassionate sharing in the sufferings of others. This loving surrender to the mystery of God revealed in another, especially in others who are “not like us,” gives us reason to proclaim that Thanksgiving is always right and just!
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