Gratitude: A Meditation for the Thanksgiving Holiday

Easter is all about Resurrection.  Christmas is about Incarnation, Emmanuel, God dwelling among us.  Epiphany is about the wondrous disclosure of God in our world.  Pentecost chronicles the arrival of the Holy Spirit.  All Saints remembers holy women and men, past and present.  These are the high feasts of the Church.  They are the dates we mark with incense and baptisms.  They are the only dates that have the authority to trump any and all other celebrations that may have the misfortune to coincide with them on the calendar.

How odd it is, then, that a national holiday, whose origins are found in fits and starts, whose place on the church’s calendar is tenuous at best, would be the one and only day that specifically marks the central act of our worship.  The Greek word “Eucharist” means, after all, “Thanksgiving.”  And whatever else the Eucharist is—a memorial that remembers the Last Supper, a morsel of spiritual nourishment that gets us through our week, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all are invited—whatever else the Eucharist is, it is mostly the moment where we, on bended knee, say to our Lord and Maker, “Thank you.”

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"Eucharist" means thanksgiving.

“Eucharist” means thanksgiving.

It’s easy to forget gratitude.  We’ve just been through yet another rancorous election cycle, where ordinarily kind and reasonable people hurled epithets at one another through sneers and gritted teeth.  We abide in a world in which dangers lurk, ranging from the religious zealotry of ISIS and Boko Haram to the impersonal devastation of Ebola.  Just when we think we have made progress on issues of race, another young, unarmed black man is killed, this time in Ferguson, Missouri, causing resentments, prejudices, anger, and confusion to well up with destructive consequences.  Just when we think our young people are being formed in virtue, Rolling Stone magazine runs a cover story on sexual assault of the most horrific kind in a fraternity house at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities.  Yes, it’s easy to forget gratitude and lapse into despair.

And yet, our amnesia is our peril.  Recent psychological studies underscore the importance, indeed, the healthful benefits, of gratitude.  Physiologically, there are particular hormones and neurotransmitters connected to feelings of gratitude, which coalesce in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain.   University of Miami professor Michael McCullough says when we count our blessings, it is like resetting our emotional systems and placing them in a virtuous cycle.  By intentionally practicing gratitude, we rewire our brains to be grateful; we literally reshape who we are.  Gratitude begets health, which leads to more gratitude.  And this doesn’t merely make us feel better internally.  It leads to actual, tangible, external benefits in the world.  Over time, people who practice gratitude experience less envy, anger, resentment, and regret, which means that a grateful nation will be, over time, less prone to acts of hatred, violence, and abuse.

Yes, yes, we may respond.  Easier said than done.  How can we remind ourselves to be grateful in the midst of such a broken world?

We began our worship this evening with my favorite Thanksgiving hymn:

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;

He chastens and hastens his will to make known;

The wicked oppressing, now cease from distressing:

Sing praises to his Name; he forgets not his own!

 

The hymn brings to mind images of family members in warm sweaters sitting around a fully-stocked table, candles glowing and cheeks rosy-red.  It is comforting and sentimental.

But it turns out “We gather together” was not penned as an homage to the typical American family reunion at Thanksgiving.  It was written in 1597 by Adrianus Valerius to celebrate the Dutch victory over a larger Spanish force at the Battle of Turnhout in the Netherlands.

After their victory at Turnhout, Dutch Protestants could worship without fear.

After their victory at Turnhout, Dutch Protestants could worship without fear.

This victory was especially meaningful.  Philip II had not only made war against the Dutch.  Under threat of punishment, the Spanish king also had forbidden the Protestant Dutch to gather together for worship.  After their stunning victory at Turnhout the Dutch could finally congregate without fear.  Rather than resembling our cozy Thanksgiving meal, their “gathering together” included the reunion in worship of the destitute, the war weary, and those who had been oppressed.

What did they do first?  Did they turn on one another in the attempt to gain advantage in a bad situation?  Did they rail against God for subjecting them to war?  No.  Their first words were:  “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.  Sing praises to his Name; he forgets not his own!”  The Dutch Christians recognized that only by the grace of God had they endured Spanish rule.  And they took time out from rebuilding their lives to give God praise and thanksgiving.

It is the sentiment of Psalm 65, “When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions. Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts.  We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.”

And then, in the midst of trial, the Psalmist recounts all the blessings of God.

Thank youSo it should be for us.  We have so much to be thankful for!

We don’t suffer under the rule of an arbitrary king.

We enjoy liberty and prosperity and the good company of one another.

Crucially, we have the power and agency (and, I would add, the responsibility) to combat those things in this world that imperil God’s children.

And we are able to gather together and make our Eucharist—our thanksgiving—as part of a vibrant and faith-filled Cathedral family at Christ Church, a family who shares one another’s joys and shoulders one another’s burdens.

So let us, even in the midst of troubled times, be grateful.  It is good for the brain, the body, the soul, and the world.  We say to God as we approach God’s altar, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

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