“Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Today’s Gospel is a reflection on our need for healing, our need for God’s presence in our lives, and perhaps most especially, our need for gratitude. Not gratitude for what we have done; rather, gratitude for what we have received, for what has been done for us, and for the many graces and blessings that we have in Christ Jesus. The Christian disciple is called to be a person of gratitude.
Jesus is on a journey, and he enters a town where he is met by a group of wandering lepers. It’s important to know why they would be out wandering around. As you may know, leprosy was thought to be a horribly contagious disease which made the person with the disease completely unclean. That person could no longer remain with his or her family nor worship in the Temple. So this was a disease that not only made the person suffer physically, but also cut them off from the community and left them with no means of support, nor a place to stay. They had to be out wandering around.
A Maryknoll priest who was in Korea about 40 years ago tells the story of lepers who were in the area where he lived. They were not allowed to be with their communities or families. Once a year they went to a playing field. Two ropes were stretched across the field about 50 yards apart. The lepers stood at one rope and their families at another and they called out to each other-across the erected chasm that separated them-it was their annual “family visit.” So you can see that being healed from leprosy was no small salvation.
But we are not so different from this group of lepers, I think. The lepers in today’s gospel story are an unusual group. They consist of Jews and Samaritans, two groups that didn’t mix in usual society. But misery and affliction had united them. As someone once said, “Whatever our social ranking, we all shed the same tears.” We too are aware of our need for God, who alone can help us. We all have had our missteps and regrets and can feel separated from others. Our presence at Eucharist today says that we want Jesus’ company with us on this stage of our journey. We want him to show us the next steps and we want to stay close to him and one another as we travel through life’s journey.
What’s very important for us to get, then, is that our gratitude must be the natural reaction that we have to that presence of God as we travel the journey. As we gather here for the Eucharist, we know that the word “eucharist” is Greek for “thanksgiving.” Our very gathering every Sunday is a celebration of thanks to our God who walks with us through the good times and the bad and sees us through the perils of this world to the joy of everlasting life. Our celebration must always overflow with gratitude for the salvation we have in Christ.
But when we stop to think about it, how often are we really grateful for our gifts? Do we sometimes miss noticing the good things God has given us, simply because we forget to take the time to be grateful? What are the joys that God intended for us that we never had the opportunity to know because we did not have an attitude of gratitude? Are there times when we have not seen God’s hand at work in the hard times of our lives because we are not a basically grateful people?
Like the lepers in today’s Gospel, we have been healed of lots of things. We have found ourselves healed when:
- A person who loves us tells us a hard truth we need to hear about ourselves.
- We experience, in a long relationship, opportunities for growth in generosity, forgiveness, patience and humor.
- Parenting teaches us to give our lives for another in frequent doses of our time, energies, hopes and tears.
- We suffer a broken relationship, go for counsel and the guidance we receive gives us hope for our future.
- We seek help for an addiction and the group members offer us wisdom, support and helping hands when we fall and support us “one day at a time.”
- We suffer the death of a loved one and family and friends are there to grieve with us and eventually there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Not every gift of our lives is something that at first glance seems like a good thing. Sometimes the fact that God has helped us through a bad situation is grace enough to celebrate. Back when I was in my second year of seminary, just before Christmas, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. We got her through the surgery and started on chemotherapy and eventually managed so celebrate Christmas. Just after I returned to the seminary in January, my father was diagnosed with kidney cancer. I have to tell you, I didn’t know how to pray any more at that point. I didn’t have words to say to God. But some of my brother seminarians came to my room one night and sheepishly offered to pray over me. They had no idea how important that offer was to me. I invited them in and we talked, and they prayed over me. From that point on, I was able to pray again, for my parents and for myself, because they had been God’s grace to me. I’ve never stopped being thankful for that – not for the situation, but for the grace and for my friends, both of which were a gift from God.
I want to offer you two gratitude tools, and I hope that you’ll use one of them in your prayer life. The first is the idea of a “gratitude journal.” Some of you may already be doing this. Basically, every time you find something to be grateful for, you make a note of it in a journal. It doesn’t have to be a long story, just a few notes about what you’re grateful for. And the idea is that you go back every so often and look at the entries to see how you have been blessed, and the many ways that God has been working in your life. There’s no way you can not be more grateful and more joyful when you do that.
The second tool is a tool that I am borrowing and slightly modifying from St. Ignatius of Loyola. It’s called the “Evening Examen,” and St. Ignatius has required all of his Jesuit and Jesuit-influenced followers to pray it every evening. The way I do it is to ask myself three questions at the end of every day. It takes maybe five minutes, maybe an hour, it depends on the day. But If you do it every day faithfully, you will again see the grace of God at work in you and I believe you’ll find more joy in your relationship with God. Those three questions are:
1. What are the blessings and graces I have received today? (Then give thanks for them.)
2. What are the things I have said or done today that have not been a source of grace to others or to myself? (Then ask God’s forgiveness.)
3. In what way or ways has God been trying to get me to move, or what has God been trying to do in me these days? (Then ask for whatever grace you need to move in that direction.)
So just three things: How have I been blessed? How have I sinned? What has God been trying to do in me? That prayer has been a source of growth for me as a disciple, and I hope you’ll try it and keep it in your prayer toolbox for the future.
Let us not be a people who leave the giving of thanks to others, like the Jewish lepers left the Samaritan to do in today’s Gospel. May we instead be a people marked by an attitude of gratitude, giving thanks for the many ways that God sustains us and blesses us. Then we can be a people, when asked, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” can truly respond…
“It is right to give him thanks and praise!”