By Richard Ajalat
Every Thanksgiving we reflect on what we are thankful for in our lives. We often come up with the same generic answers year after year. Through high school my answers were always family, friends, the church (I learned at some point not to mention video games and toys!). As I got older, I added different organizations to my list, like SOYO and OCF. We all have this list. We were taught in Kindergarten to make it, and we have done so ever since, in our heads if not on paper. And there is nothing wrong with being thankful for our possessions, but is that what Thanksgiving, or “Giving Thanks” is really about? Is making a list and saying ”˜thank you’ what our Lord expects of us? Is that what the Apostle Paul is talking about when he encourages us to be thankful for all things at all times?
In fact, I think that the answer is both ”˜yes’ and ”˜no.’ It’s not a matter (usually) of what we are thankful for, but how we choose to show our thanks. Certainly we are on dangerous ground when we expect our Thanksgiving list to match our Christmas list! But when we distill our thanksgiving lists to the things that are truly important to us, such as food, shelter, and loving relationships, this is certainly what our Lord expects us to be thankful for, because these are unquestionably blessings that God has given us.
The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) address the needs that people have, and the blessings that the Lord extends. Humans need basic things in life – food, clothing, shelter, love. And these blessings all come from God the Father, who is the source of all blessings.
Certainly, God has provided all of these basic human needs for me. As is likely true for most of you, I can’t count a single day in my life that I was without such blessings as food, clothing, shelter and companionship. And we’re all grateful for these blessings. But saying “thank you” isn’t enough.
At some point, we all got this idea in our heads that ”˜giving thanks’ means ”˜saying thanks.’ But that’s not what Christ teaches. He does not say “sit back and enjoy your blessings. (cf Luke 12:15-21) Rather, the expectation is that we will provide others with blessings, too. Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Christ teaches his famous passage about the final judgment. And how does he judge us? Jesus says, “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and your clothed me, I was sick and your visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:31-46). He doesn’t even mention whether we thanked him for having such things ourselves. He is interested merely in whether we paid such blessings forward, so to speak. Those who loved others are rewarded with eternal life. And those who do not love others, well…things don’t end so pleasantly! Why would our Lord take such an interest in our behavior toward others, but not in our response to the Lord himself? Because there is no difference! It is simply impossible to say ”˜thank you’ to God while we ignore those people around us who may not have been blessed the way we have been.
Thanksgiving is an active process, the same way that loving a person is an active process. So the correct response – the correct display of our gratitude for God’s blessings – is that we work to provide these same blessings to others. These are the things that Christ commanded us to do. He didn’t ask us, he commanded us. And he didn’t say tomorrow or some day, but today. We can serve our communities in so many different ways. Just look around to find someone who needs help. Better still, just have the courage to ask.
What are some of the ways we can show our thankfulness by helping others? We can go and help at a homeless shelter and feed the hungry. We can teach Sunday School. We can visit sick or lonely people. We can tutor a child. After liturgy, we can talk to someone we don’t know instead of going straight to our friends. We can just say a kind word to a cranky person at the grocery store. It’s not easy to prioritize these activities – to prioritize others in our busy lives. But this is our high calling as followers of Christ.
When we do these things – when we reach out to others as a way of expressing our love of them and our gratitude toward God – something else is accomplished: we witness to the Gospel. We show these people just a glimpse of Jesus Christ in our outreach, often without mentioning Him at all. Francis of Assisi is often quoted as saying, “Preach the gospel always and if necessary, use words.” Through our actions we express our thankfulness. As Francis demonstrated to us by the way he lived his life, through our actions we show love and thankfulness, and more importantly, we show Jesus Christ to our fellow man.
It is through our Christian actions and interactions with others that our generic ”˜thank you’ list becomes personal and acceptable to God. And people no longer need to ask what we’re thankful for, because they can see it in our actions. By this type of active response, we have shown that we are truly thankful to God for our family, friends, and His church, for our very lives, and for our salvation.