The supernatural power of thanksgiving: A homily for Thanksgiving Day

Today we gather around this holy altar to give thanks to our Christ. Today is a happy meeting of culture and religion. There ought to be nothing more natural for us Christians to do than what our culture calls us to do today—because God calls us to do it every day. We heard about the ten lepers who were healed, and how only one bothered to come back and thank God. It has been suggested that the rest were perhaps waiting for Thanksgiving Day. But God calls us to give thanks always and everywhere. It is our duty and salvation, as we say at every Mass. God calls us to continual thanksgiving. Scripture is all about thanksgiving. St. Paul begins each of his letters by offering thanks (except Galatians—it was bad day). We see an example of that in his letter to the Church in Colossae, which the Church gives us as our second reading today. Another example: the psalms are ancient texts that were originally songs, songs written largely by David to thank God—songs because words just aren’t enough sometimes.

Giving thanks is quite scriptural and has always played an important part of our Christian tradition. It is at the core of the most important thing we Christians do around the globe each day and have for 2000 years—the Eucharist. (The Greek word “eucharisteo” means “to give thanks,” and so significant was the act of thanksgiving at the Last Supper, that right away that word was used to name the meal we share each Sunday.) But thanksgiving is an important part of our more basic and daily traditions, too. We light votive candles to thank God for this or that person. Young Christians are taught that the first thing they do when they receive a gift is to write a thank you card.

And so we know that giving thanks is a scriptural and traditional thing to do. It is critically important for our spiritual lives. As the saying goes, “Thanksgiving is more than good manners. It’s also good spirituality.” St. Ignatius knew this well. During the summer of 2011, I studied with the Jesuits at Creighton University. There I was introduced to two important insights into thanksgiving that I want to share with you.

First, Ignatius said that at the end of a day, it’s important to examine the day. His idea was is called the Examen. Many of us work it into our night prayers and especially the Divine Office, which Msgr and I pray together each night. The first thing you do is consider God’s presence and thank God for blessings in the day. (Then you review the day, face your shortcomings, and make a resolution for tomorrow.) But it starts with thanksgiving.

That part of Ignatian spirituality is well known. But I remember being a little shocked to read from Ignatius that he believed that ingratitude is “the cause, beginning, and origin of all evils and sins.” Interesting, no? Most say pride, or lust, or anger. But perhaps Ignatius is right. Perhaps, if I were truly and deeply thankful for the people God has given to my life (with their quirks and warts and all), maybe I would be less likely to rank myself as “better” than they, that is, maybe I wouldn’t become so proud so easily. Or, perhaps if I were really thankful for all I have been given that I don’t deserve, perhaps then I would be less likely to fall into anger when the stoplight turns red, or when someone makes a little mistake, or when a child or neighbor tries my patience.

If, as Ignatius says, ingratitude is indeed “the cause, beginning, and origin of all evils and sins,” then it follows that gratitude is the cause, beginning, and origin of all goods and virtues.  Maybe he is right….

• The more thankful a mother is for her son as she gazes upon him sleeping, the better she will treat him when he is running amuck on a three o’clock sugar high
• The more thankful a priest is for his vocation, the better priest he will be.
• The more thankful a child is to God for his lunch, the less he will waste and the less he’ll complain. (We must teach our children gratitude.)
• The more thankful I am for the Holy Mass, the more reverently I will pray it and enjoy it.
• The more grateful we are for the people in our lives, the better we will be to them, the less we will gossip about them, be rude to them, lust after them, the more we will pray for them
• The more I am thankful for God’s rules—the roadmap he has given us—the more I will follow them and embrace them and share them.
• The more thankful I am for my blessings—of money, health, good fortune—the more I will make use of them and the more generous I will be.
• The more I am thankful for the donut, the less I’ll complain about the hole in it.

I want to suggest that we all try to work those two legacies of St Ignatius into our daily prayer lives. That is, what if at the end of the day, we each thanked God with all we’ve got for what we’ve got. And secondly, what if instead of trying to fix individual sins, we work on gratitude and watch all those sins fall away?

I began this sermon by saying that giving thanks ought to be the most natural thing for us Christians. It is also the more supernatural thing we can do. It has supernatural powers to it. Perhaps that is why Meister Elkart said that if the only prayer a man ever prays is “thank you,” it might just be enough. The giving of thanks is powerful. It transforms our hearts, our homes, our families, our workplaces, our everything. Let us give thanks to God for everything, always and everywhere. Not just in the great moments, not just on Thanksgiving Day, not just when we seem to have a lot. We thank him always and everywhere.

And the best way to do that is at this holy altar.