The Hebrew word hodah, which is generally translated as “give thanks”, means “confess, profess or state publicly.” In the Bible to give thanks means to state in a public way that at this moment, this concrete, historical moment God was at work. This biblical concept of thanksgiving as public witness to God’s action is prominent in Luke’s account of the cleansing of the ten lepers. Ten were healed, but only one returned and publicly gave thanks to Jesus- the Samaritan, the outsider, the one least expected by a Jewish audience to do so since his very identity as a Jew was suspect. Maybe the other nine felt that Jesus, as a brother Jew, owed this healing to them. The Samaritan knew that he was owed nothing; he knew that it was all sheer gift. And so gratitude publicly and powerfully expressed was the only adequate response. We assume that all ten were grateful, but only one was transformed by gratitude. Only one really tasted and savored the presence of God’s closeness and action in his life.
This is what the Pilgrims did in the autumn of 1621. They took time, after a rich harvest, to offer thanks for having survived their first year in the new world. As one of them wrote, “By the goodness of God, we are so far from want.” A number of years ago Peter Fleck a Unitarian minister suggested that perhaps the Pilgrims were not thankful because they had survived, but maybe they had survived because they were grateful. In other words maybe their gratitude transformed them, much as that healed Samaritan was transformed by his gratitude.
Indeed as one scholar has noted, “You sanctify whatever you are grateful for.” And so Saint Ignatius Loyola recommends taking time to savor and relish God’s advances in the extraordinary and seemingly insignificant moments of our lives. Still we may question whether there are reasons to be grateful. In the wake of persistent unemployment, endless financial woes, threats of terrorism at home and abroad, serious illness... gratitude may seem not only inaccessible but ridiculous to suggest. Yet in times of struggle, gratitude is even more critical. We need not deny the dark in order to see the light. Darkness can make spots of light even more brilliant; like stars shining in a dark sky. May our lives be ever more brightened and transformed by gratitude.
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Photo by Brother Brian. Excerpts from Abbot Damian's homily for Thanksgiving Day.