When was the last time you received a thank you note? How did it make you feel? Did you feel appreciated and cared for? Did it cheer you to have someone acknowledge your kindness?
When was the last time you sent a thank you note? Have you ever written one just to acknowledge a simple act of generosity? How did it make you feel? Did it give you a deeper sense of gratitude? Did it make you more aware of all the good things you enjoy in life? Did it make you more willing to show kindness to others in turn?
And, if you have been meaning to send someone a thank you note but have been putting it off, what are you waiting for?
Heartfelt expressions of gratitude are good for our personal lives. But they are also essential for our spiritual ones. An important mark of a spiritual life is thankfulness. When we are grateful to God, we recognize that all we have and are is His gift. We did not create ourselves. We could not choose the family we were born into or the talents that we have used to lead a successful life. Even the money we earn and food we eat, though we have worked for it, all come from God’s providence. Without Him, we would be nothing. Faith and prayer help us to recognize that we are totally dependent on our Heavenly Father. That awareness causes gratitude to well up within us.
Spiritual people, however, know that they are not only to be grateful in good times but in hard times as well. Saint Paul is a perfect example of this. Today’s second reading is taken from his second letter to Timothy. At the time when this letter was written, Paul had been arrested for preaching the gospel. He will soon be beheaded by the Romans for his witness to Jesus. But the hardships and suffering he has endured have not made him bitter. They do not cause him to regret answering the call to spread the good news among the nations. Rather, he is grateful to have been chosen as a witness to Christ. And he is thankful that the chains he wears and the tortures he endures somehow are part of God’s plan to make Jesus known to all people. This gratitude gives Saint Paul the strength to endure imprisonment and deprivation and keeps him close to God by not allowing bitterness and regret to harden his heart.
It does not require faith to be thankful when things are going our way. Spiritual people give thanks even when life is difficult, when they have bills that they cannot pay, when they are sick and when they are surrounded by people who ridicule them. It is not an easy thing to do. We all face real problems and carry heavy burdens. When we are thankful even in the face of tragedies, we are not ignoring our grief and that of others. We are not simply telling ourselves that it could be worse. What we are doing is reminding ourselves that we are in God’s hands, and that everything that happens to us - good or bad - is part of His plan. Somehow, no matter how trying our problems may be, He will make good come out of it. Gratitude reminds us that God is at work in our lives. It gives us strength to bear the burdens we face every day. And it keeps regret, shame and bitterness from hardening our hearts and adding to our burden.
Finally, Jesus reveals to us the most important reason that we should be grateful.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus heals ten lepers. It is an extraordinary demonstration of his power over human suffering. But if we are looking only at the physical healing, we will miss the point of the story. In the ancient world, sickness was seen as a punishment for sin. The sick person - and lepers especially - not only had to bear the pain of their disease but were ostracized and shunned by their family and friends. People reacted to them with fear and disgust. For that reason, Saint Luke tells us that when the lepers ask Jesus to heal them, they keep their distance from Him. By healing them, Jesus not only cures their disease, but He removes the stigma of sin. Those who were healed could now return to their families. They could hug their wives and children again. And they could be welcomed back to worship in the synagogue and temple. It could be because they were so excited to show their family and friends that they had been healed that the other nine did not return to thank Jesus. The important thing is that one fo them - a man who was not even Jewish - did return. However, now cleansed from his disease and free from his sin, he did not have to keep his distance from Jesus, but could fall at His feet with deep, heartfelt gratitude.
The most important reason we have to thank God is not for our material possessions, our health and not even for our families. While they are certainly precious gifts, the most important thing we have received from God, the mightiest act of mercy he has shown us, is the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of faith. The mystery of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ has been made known to us. We know the truth and the freedom it brings. We are not stumbling in the darkness like so many people in today’s world. We know the way to peace, fulfillment and everlasting life. We know Jesus. We did not come to know Him because we are smarter than anyone else or somehow better. Rather, for some mysterious reason, God chose us to be the ones to hear and believe in the good news. It is a pure gift. We could not otherwise earn or merit such a privilege. God has revealed it all to us out of his immense goodness and love for us. For that reason, we should be truly grateful. Every other good thing in our lives - our loved ones, our possessions and our health - can all be taken from us. But we can never lose our faith and friendship with our Heavenly Father.
We are gathered here to express our thankfulness to God. Throughout the week we have experienced the abundance of his blessings, and we have returned to thank Him. We fall at his feet with wonder and praise knowing that even the difficulties we face are his gift to help us grow in holiness. Most importantly, we recognize that we are sinners, unworthy to draw near to Him, and yet, in His great mercy He forgives us and restores our friendship with Him. May the word we have heard and the mysteries we are about to receive break down our bitterness and fear and make us truly grateful for the love of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus.