I once met a priest who told me, “If I had my way, Thanksgiving Day would be a holy day of obligation.” He went on to explain that he had undergone a very severe health condition years before. This condition made it impossible for him to carry out his normal duties as a priest; it kept him isolated from others, and unable to function normally.
Fortunately, over time, he was able to receive the professional help he needed to recover, and he returned to his ministry renewed and reinvigorated. For him, every new day was a blessing, and every moment offered him the opportunity to serve and praise God. A spirit of gratitude imbued his life and his ministry, and he never ceased to thank God for his many gifts.
The cultivation of a spirit of thankfulness is indispensable for Christian life. The Sacred Scriptures continually extol the virtue of gratitude among people of faith:
- The psalms encourage the faithful to lift up prayers of thanksgiving to God: “Give thanks to the Lord who is good, whose love endures forever.” (Psalm 107:1)
- A spirit of profound gratitude marks the letters of St. Paul: “We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you…” (Colossians 1:3)
- Jesus himself gives his disciples the example of a grateful spirit when he prays to his Father in their midst: “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41b-42).
The celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday is a wonderful moment to stir up a spirit of gratitude within us. During my time as a parish priest, the number of people who chose to come to Mass on Thanksgiving Day was always impressive to me. They came to praise God and give thanks for the many blessings received.
One Gospel narrative frequently proclaimed at the Mass on Thanksgiving Day is the healing of the 10 lepers from the Gospel according to Luke. This story stands out in Sacred Scriptures as a vivid and moving illustration of faith-inspired gratitude. (Luke 17:11-19)
According to the story, Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem through Samaria and Galilee, when 10 lepers spotted him at a distance. One of them was a Samaritan.
In biblical times, leprosy was the most dreaded of diseases. As well as causing terrible physical suffering, it also brought on extreme social alienation because of the fear of contagion. Those who contracted the disease were banished from their families and communities. In a culture in which one’s identity was closely bound to belonging to a particular household, contracting this disease was equivalent to a loss of identity. Lepers could not interact with family members and friends, take part in normal activities of their communities or worship in the Temple. Isolated from the rest of society, lepers had to beg on the outskirts of the villages and cities.
Recognizing Jesus, the 10 lepers called out to him. However, they did not ask him for alms. Rather, they called out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” (Luke 17:13b) With those words, they were asking for mercy, compassion and healing. Jesus, sensing their faith in his power, simply sent them to show themselves to the priests. On the way, they were cleansed of their disease. Nine of them probably went on to the Temple, the place of blessing, to show themselves to the priests as Jesus commanded them to do. There, the priests would give them a clean bill of health and send them back to their families and communities.
The Samaritan, who did not worship in the Temple in Jerusalem but rather on Mount Gerizim in Samaria, realizing he had been cured decided to return to Jesus, to give thanks. In doing so, he recognized Jesus as the New Temple and the source of all blessing, and he prostrated himself before him. Of the 10 whom Jesus cured, the Samaritan stands out from all the rest. He was the one who understood the importance of returning to the source of blessing to give thanks. Jesus acknowledged the Samaritan’s virtue by saying, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”
Pope Francis, commenting on this Scripture passage in a general audience Dec. 30, 2020, said, “This narrative, so to speak, divides the world in two: those who do not give thanks and those who do; those who take everything as if it is owed to them, and those who welcome everything as a gift, as grace.”
He went on to say, “The prayer of thanksgiving always begins from here: from the recognition that grace precedes us. We were thought of before we learned to think; we were loved before we learned how to love; we were desired before our hearts conceived a desire. If we view life like this, then ‘thank you’ becomes the driving force of our day.”
The Holy Father explained that the 10 lepers in the Gospel narrative experienced great joy because of what Jesus had done for them. He freed them from their state of social isolation and allowed them to return to their families and communities. However, the one, who returned to give thanks to Jesus, received an additional joy — his personal encounter with Jesus. He not only received healing, but also now possessed the certainty of being loved by Jesus. “This is the crux: when you thank someone, you express the certainty that you are loved.”
The Thanksgiving holiday is a good time to contemplate the many ways in which we encounter Christ and experience his love. We encounter him whenever we hear the Word of God proclaimed and strive to put it into practice. We encounter him in the sacramental life of the Church, especially in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, when we share his Body and Blood. We encounter him in our personal prayer as we open up our hearts to him. We encounter him in our daily interaction with others — our family members, friends and co-workers. In a special way, we encounter him in our outreach to those who are in most need of our aid, our love and our mercy.
As we mature in our Christian faith, we come to know more intensely Christ, the source of all blessing. We come to understand with certainty his boundless love for us, and for that love, we are eternally grateful.
During this season of Thanksgiving, we realize that there is so much for which to be thankful — faith, family, friends, hearth, home, health, food and material blessings. May we always be grateful to God, who nourishes us, heals us, cares for us and loves us without limits.