Q: I want to do more this Thanksgiving than just go to Mass with my family. How can I make this holiday more spiritually meaningful?
A: Attending Mass is always a great way to make the holiday a holy day, so definitely continue to include the Eucharist in your plans. But rather than adding something else to an already busy time, it can be helpful to reconsider what it means to be thankful.
One of the few times we see someone expressing thankfulness to Jesus in the Gospels is when the Samaritan leper returns to thank the Lord. (see Luke 17:11-19)
While 10 lepers were healed, only the Samaritan recognized that his restored health came from Jesus. This passage illustrates how most people fail to recognize their giftedness as coming from God. We are not thankful for something we think is owed to us. The other nine lepers were doubtless happy to be healed but probably failed to recognize that healing as a gift from Jesus. Perhaps they thought their own efforts had restored their health, or that they had earned God’s mercy.
The first step in deepening our gratitude is to know that we have been blessed — and that neither do we deserve these blessings, nor does God owe them to us. The second step is to thank the Lord for his generous mercy. All is gift, and God is the source of every good gift.
The third step of authentic gratitude is to realize our inability to reciprocate the gift we have received, and then focus rather on the intention of the giver. This is the core of the virtue of gratitude, according to St. Thomas Aquinas — perhaps the most difficult and the most necessary. The Samaritan leper does this by placing his life at the feet of Jesus in an act of homage. He received the gift of health from Jesus, and now he places that gift at the feet of our Lord to be directed by him. The Samaritan leper is literally offering to Jesus his life to do the Lord’s will.
All too often, we fail to even consider this third and final step of authentic gratitude. We may count our blessings and even thank the Lord for them, but very rarely do we offer God our lives in an act of thankful worship.
The English word thank actually comes from the word think. This etymological connection means we cannot be thankful until we are properly “thinkful,” or mindful. It is not our lack of blessing that makes us ungrateful but rather our lack of awareness.
When we are mindful that everything is a gift from God and respond by offering every gift to be used according to the Lord’s intention, then we are living in gratitude as faithful and mature disciples. The ultimate gift we have received from God is that he sent his Son, Jesus, to be our Savior. We celebrate this greatest gift of God in the Eucharist (from the Greek words eu meaning “good” and charis meaning “gift”). It is in the Mass that we offer our lives to the Father as an expression of our gratitude for so great a gift. There is no better way to offer thanks than to attend Mass.
Even difficulties and sufferings are given to us for our salvation. For this reason, St. Paul exhorted the Christians of Thessalonica to thank the Lord for all things. (see 1 Thessalonians 5:18) It is easy to recognize pleasant experiences as blessings, but Jesus reminds us that even persecutions are a blessed experience. (see Matthew 5:11-13) St. Paul pointed to his own imprisonment, illnesses and lashings as a blessing for which he offered thanks to God. (see 2 Corinthians 4:7-15)
This November, prayerfully contemplate these three necessary steps of Christian gratitude. Then, when you attend Mass with your family on Thanksgiving, you can do so with the same saving faith that was witnessed by the Samaritan leper.