God invites us to turn Thanksgiving Day into a way of life

Every liturgical celebration of the church springs from thankfulness for the paschal mystery


Q. It seems to me that of all the kinds of prayer we do at Mass — praise, thanksgiving, petition and contrition — thanksgiving has first place. Am I correct?


A. Yes! Thank you for your observation. It invites me to reflect on thankfulness and the coming Thanksgiving holiday.

On June 9, 1995, a young American airman named Scott O’Grady was rescued from Serb-controlled Bosnia. Upon returning to his air base in Aviano, Italy, the exuberant pilot stepped to a microphone to address his comrades and the world. He began by saying: “First of all, I want to thank God.” Not “It’s sure good to see all of you again,” or “It’s really great to be back,” but “First of all, I want to thank God.”

He went on to say that God’s love for him and his love for God got him through a six-day ordeal after his plane was shot down in the war-torn
region.

“First of all, I want to thank God.” Are those our first thoughts, our first words, every day? Or are we like those lepers in the Gospel for Thanksgiving Day, blessed but ungrateful?

Maybe sometimes — often? — we act as one of my undergraduate students wrote in a course paper: “I think that people spend too much time complaining about all the bad things that happen to them and they don’t take the time to appreciate all of the good.”

Thankful people know that there is more good than bad in their lives.

Our first response

“First of all, I want to thank God.” This is the church’s first instinct, too. Every liturgical celebration of the church springs from her thankfulness for the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, God’s Easter plan for our salvation through his saving death and resurrection, in which we share through baptism. Thankfulness is the church’s first and foremost instinct in every Mass, all the way from “We give you thanks for your great glory” in the Gloria to the final words: “Thanks be to God!”

Our word “Eucharist” comes from “eucharistia,” the Greek word for thanksgiving. At every Eucharist, at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest celebrant gives an invitation to the assembly: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” And they respond: “It is right and just.”

In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, said that the priest was unable to continue with the Eucharistic Prayer unless he received that response from the assembly. That’s how important is our desire to give God thanks.

But sometimes, even at the liturgy, we may not feel like giving thanks. When we are ill, or lonely, or upset, discouraged or tired, we would not on our own be thankful. But to be Christian is to rehearse the attitude of thankfulness in our lives often, and to do this together, at the liturgy.

Thanksgiving is not a personal emotion, based on the situation of the moment. Rather, thanksgiving is a belief we share as the whole people of God. It is our shared faith in the care that God has for us; it is our shared faith in God’s goodness.

So to sing together, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” “It is right and just,” is to proclaim this faith, our faith in a God who gives us more good gifts for body and spirit than we could ever deserve. It reminds us that we are not self-sufficient, but rather interdependent, united with each other in the family of God. And, as we express our thanksgiving together, our communal praise of God can silence our personal complaints and remove our selfishness.

Thanksgiving Day reminds us that the habit of thanksgiving is a good one for us to have, for a lifetime. This holiday is our yearly opportunity to take time to say: “First of all, I want to thank God.” And daily, God invites us to turn Thanksgiving Day into a way of life.