BETWEEN GRACE AND GRATITUDE: LEARNING FROM THE SCHOOL OF MARY AND THE HOLY EUCHARIST
As we complete thirty years in the Priesthood of Christ, there is need to look back with unreserved appreciation and deep gratitude to Almighty God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). It is good to give thanks to Him whose power working in us can do much more than we can think of or imagine (Eph. 3:20). We recall the question of St. Paul who asked, “what do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
Life itself is a gift. The priesthood is a privileged unmerited gift. To actively and perhaps effectively function for over three decades as a priest is simply God’s grace and favour. For all these, it becomes our duty to give thanks.
However, in this article, I want to emphasize the benefits of giving thanks and the need to joyfully give praise to God. This we can see in the life of Mary who has demonstrated that there is a strong link between grace and gratitude. We shall also learn from the Holy Eucharist which is an act of Gratitude.
MARY: THE WOMAN OF GRATITUDE
Our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary has left us an example to follow. She displayed her deep faith and humility in her song and prayer of thanksgiving – the Magnificat. In that song, we are able to glimpse her inner disposition towards God and also her self-perception. She had a healthy esteem of self and attributed so much honour to God. Magnificat is not her prayer; it is her life.
Magnificat, which is a hymn of gratitude and humility to God who has done great favours for Mary, was Mary’s response in gratitude to grace received. In Mary we observe the closeness and unity between grace and gratitude. Being full of grace as the Angel saluted her (cf. Lk. 1:28), she was also full of gratitude and of the Holy Spirit which is the uncreated grace. And being inspired by the Spirit of God she responded in gratitude which is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Sacred Scripture speaks of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the salvation history. Jesus was conceived [in the womb] of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt. 1:18; Lk. 1:35), and according to the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, we are speaking of an unprecedented and humanly inconceivable novelty: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14a). (cf. Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, nos. 11 and 15).
Mary’s response to grace which expresses itself in a life of gratitude is also the effect of the power of the Holy Spirit working in her. With reference to the Magnificat, the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI writes, that in this marvelous canticle of faith, the Virgin sings the praise of the Lord in His own words. “The Magnificat – a portrait, so to speak, of her soul – is entirely woven from the threads of Holy Scripture, threads drawn from the Word of God. She speaks and thinks with the Word of God, the Word of God becomes her word and her word issues from the Word of God…” (cf. Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, no. 28). The Pope would want us to see that Mary is completely at home with the Word of God. She identifies with the word, enters into it, with ease she moves in and out of it and she is completely imbued with the word. No wonder Mary lived her life based on the word of God; she lived the word of God, a life of gratitude, a life of thanksgiving, the Eucharistic life of the Incarnate Word.
We are called to imitate Mary and be open to the word of God, be open to the Spirit of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. The word of God which has its alluring and inspiring potency to incarnate us can transform us and drive us into actions that will daily be a song of gratitude lived every moment to the glory of God.
THE EUCHARIST: THE SUPREME ACT OF GRATITUDE
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, a blessing by which the Church expresses her gratitude to God for all his benefits, for all that he has accomplished through creation, redemption, and sanctification. Eucharist means first of all ‘thanksgiving’ ” (cf. CCC no. 1360).
The love of God for us which is attested to through all his dealings with human beings was brought to its highest level in the story of our salvation in Christ. Christ became a man like us in all things but sin in order to save humanity. In doing so, he became Emmanuel, God with us. The high point of his extraordinary mission of salvation is that he accepted to suffer, to die, in order to liberate us from the shackles of sin. Greater love has no man than this! (Jn. 15:13). It is through his suffering, his death and his resurrection that we are able to again reconcile with the Father and that we become again heirs to his promises. His sacrifice is indeed the highest point of love.
This sacrifice is daily commemorated in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The magnitude of his sacrificial love is such that he desired it to be forever. He instituted the priesthood that would make this possible. The “do this in memorial of me” ensures that Christ’s wondrous sacrifice is daily replicated among his people. Thus, “memorial” here does not mean mere remembrance. It is a reenactment, an anamnesis in Greek. It is a memorial which so to say transposes the primordial act into the here and now. It makes an act which was posed in illo tempore, to defy the chasm of time and to become present once again. Through the celebration of the sacrament therefore, there is a continuation; a making present of Christ’s sacrificial love for man.
This sacrificial love, continually reenacted in the Eucharist is the centre of the life of the Christian community. All other acts which that community can perform, arises from and is given meaning by the Eucharist. The sacraments which mediate Christ’s sanctification of his people find their origin and their end in this central sacrament: the Eucharist.
But the Eucharist is in itself a sacrament of thanksgiving. It is a sacrament which through the history of God’s people, and especially in the Scriptures, has been designated by several names. It has been designated as Memorial (1Cor. 11:25); Supreme act of love (John 13: 1-20); Unity (1Cor. 10: 17); the Lord’s Supper while awaiting his return (1Cor. 11:26; Matt. 26:29); Bread of Life and Body of Christ (John 6:51-59); Breaking of Bread (Acts 2:42). One of the most appropriate designations of the sacrament of Christ is nevertheless, EUCHARISTIA, which is Greek word for thanksgiving. In the Eucharist, the Church continually thanks God for his wonderful work in Christ. It is most fitting that this thanksgiving is expressed by offering to God the same sacrifice that Christ offered to save us from the stranglehold of sin and death. In fact, there is nothing greater that the Church can do in appreciation. No prayer, no praise can measure to the sublimity of this sacrament. The Eucharist is therefore the supreme act of thanksgiving where the Church joins her offering to that of Christ, and thereby making Christ’s sacrifice her own. For the individual Christians and for the community of Christians, no act of thanksgiving can supersede participation in the Eucharistic celebration of the Christian community.
The continuation of this act of thanksgiving among earthly Christians is made possible by the gift of the ministerial priesthood to the community. The priest acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), as Leader of the Eucharistic assembly. He thus exercises that same priesthood of Christ which is the fulcrum of our salvation, in the name of the Church. The priesthood of the faithful is hinged on the effort of Christ’s followers and the beneficiaries of his complete self-giving to replicate the generosity which they have experienced in the Lord. At the Eucharist, there is a recounting of the works of the Lord, followed by the reenactment of his primordial act of self-sacrifice. The people, having experienced this stupendous generosity, go into the world, eager to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their brothers and sisters. It is in making this spiritual sacrifice for their brothers, in imitation of Christ and in gratitude to God, through abnegation and active charity, that they in turn actualize their priesthood – the priesthood of the faithful.
In this way all the members of the Church are challenged to make functional their gratitude to God in Christ, to transform the world by making it a world of brotherly love and service: in a word, to make it a Eucharistic world. They are enjoined to make the most of the gift of the Eucharist, by increasing their participation in it, and in gratitude to make special effort to realize the effects of our participation in this supreme act of thanksgiving in the world, so that God will continue to be glorified.
LET US SHOW GRATITUDE IN OUR DAILY LIFE
The attitude of awareness of our indebtedness to God will in a very special way colour our lives. It eschews pride and inculcates humility. It leads to the full realization that none of us lives for himself alone, and none dies for himself alone. This virtue of gratitude enables us to be constantly aware of God’s presence in our lives and to acknowledge his mighty hands all around us. It enables us to value the contributions of our fellow human beings; our neighbours, members of our families, our colleagues at work, our communities, our nation. The attitude of gratitude is a very healthy one, both psychologically and spiritually. That is why it is very fitting and beneficial to make special effort to inculcate it in each and every one of us through continuous practice. This is realizable, among other positive means, through the following acts and living in line with the following principles.
Continually and daily give thanks to God:
William Ward asks the following question which can set many of us to personal reflection. “God gave you a gift of 86, 400 seconds today. Have you used one of it to say ‘thank you?’” This question is a lesson to the person who does not set out special times to express thanks to God. It does not mean that one second out of a whole day is enough to thank God. It does not mean also that we should reserve or restrict giving thanks to God to special times. But it does mean that using one second daily will be much better than not doing so at all. The omission to thank God will, with time, make us not to recognize or use his blessings properly.
Make Thanksgiving a Way of Life:
Thanksgiving should be done all the time until it becomes our life style and life itself. A practice that becomes a way of life becomes an integral part of the life of the individual or groups of individuals concerned. George Herbert prays that thanksgiving becomes the pulse of his heart:
Thou has given so much to me
Give one thing more – a grateful heart
…Such a heart whose pulse may be thy praise.
Another saying attributed to Jacqueline Winspear has it that “Grace is not a little prayer you chant before receiving a meal. It is a way to live.” The philosopher of the common man, G.K. Chesterton, says the same in different words: “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before skirting, painting, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
In other words, we have to move from mere prayer of thanks to a life of thanksgiving. It should be an attitude, a way of life.
Express Gratitude to all, even to Inanimate Things:
The primary object of our gratitude is God. We offer our thanks to him for who he is, for his sovereignty and control over the universe, for the wonder of our being and beauty of creation, for our plans, hope and accomplishments, above all, for his love and our salvation in Christ.
Other objects of our gratitude include: our parents, family, Church, the human society and those who have played important roles in our lives. Again, it is very easy to forget that the lower beings, the animals and birds, the inanimate things we have around us; those that make our life easier and more interesting are things for which we ought to give thanks. George Colman advises: “praise the bridge that carried you over.” Figuratively, praising a bridge is a way of praising the owner and the builder and even the person who conceived the building of a bridge that helped you to cross a river or a valley. Such an attitude will find God himself at the very summit of those who deserve praise for the bridge.
Show Appreciation in Act:
A very practical and effective way of showing appreciation is to make the most of the gift or the blessing for which we are thankful. One time president of the United States, J.F. Kennedy, put this as follows: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” In this sense, living by the words we express in gratitude is to use that for which we are grateful in such a way that its use is another and higher level of gratitude. It would be unseemly and to pretend that one is grateful for receiving a particular thing and then go on to treat that gift as if it were valueless. So, W.T. Purkiser says, “not what we say about our blessings, but how we use them, is the true measure of our thankfulness.” If this thought is extended to the whole of our being, our living in the world; a handling of all the best of endowments, positions, privileges, power and opportunities that God has put in our way, what a different world would we live in! In this respect and in many others, true gratitude has far reaching positive consequences.
Be Thankful for Little Things:
The habit of gratitude is best cultivated when we make spirited attempt to be thankful to God and fellow humans in the most ordinary things of life. There are so many little circumstances in which we usually forget or presume not to give thanks. There are many acts of kindness which we do not even think deserve our thanks. The waiter in a restaurant who serves you; the police constable standing in the sun who extends a greeting to you at a road block; the pump girl in a filling station who fills the tank of your car with fuel; the seller – petty trader beside the road who sells some oranges or bananas to you; the little boy on the road side who sells a sachet of pure water to you to assuage your thirst; the conductor in a public bus who keeps order so that you make your journey in peace; the driver who drives carefully enough to enable you to arrive at your destination.
Within the family, the young maid who does certainly more than her normal share of chores, and who takes care of your children in your absence, how often do you and your children express thanks to her, and how often does she express thanks to you? Your husband who is perhaps the major breadwinner of the family, does he receive commensurate thanks for fending for all of you? And your wife who keeps the house after her tedious day’s work, how often does she receive thanks and praise from the rest of the members of the family? We have innumerable instances for expressing thanks, the more we neglect such occasions, the more we show that we have not learnt the attitude of gratitude. In the opinion of Frank Clark, “If a fellow isn’t thankful for what he’s got, he is not likely to be thankful for what he is going to get.” The Gospel says that he who is not faithful in little things will not be faithful in bigger things. The habit of being thankful in small things, even when thanks are unexpected, endears us to God and to humans.
Count your Blessings:
“In the world of sin and sorrow, there is always something to be thankful for,” so says H.L. Mencken. Our blessings from God are so innumerable that no matter how difficult and hard we think a particular situation is, little reflection will lead us to realize that God is good to us all the time. The problem we have in doing this is in setting our minds too intently on something with regard to which we do not want to know the will of God. An old proverb has it that a man was crying that he had no shoes until he saw somebody who had no foot. It does not thereby mean that it is only in comparison with our fellow human beings who are less comfortable than we are that we should count our blessings from God. What is significant is that in every conceivable situation there are always numerous reasons to thank God. No matter how hard our present may seem to be, with a little memory we cannot fail to count our blessings and remain grateful to the Almighty. That breeds contentment, joy and even more confidence.
Begin Every Prayer with Thanksgiving:
Thanksgiving is a very effective type of prayer and an essential form of prayer. The experience of Christ with the ten lepers shows clearly that God appreciates a thankful heart. Because of the situation of human need, our prayers tend to be more of petition or supplication. Such prayers have their values since they underline the knowledge of our dependence on God. But when it is overdone, if our prayers of petition become the central prayer in our spiritual life, it seems to smack of excessive concentration on the self. A thankful heart puts his petitions last. He first praises God for his goodness, and then thanks him for the effects or experience of his goodness. Hence praise and thanksgiving are very intimately bound together. One who begins his prayer with praise and thanksgiving reduces his needs before God. Such an attitude opens us for more of God’s favours and blessings. When God asked Solomon to make his supplication, the wise Solomon did not ask for anything personal to him. His attention was rather focused on the affairs of the Lord. The Lord in response blessed him much more than he could ever imagine. The same experience could be ours if we learn to praise and thank God first, before any other type of prayer.
Express Thanks by Varied Means:
All our thanksgiving must not be in the verbalized form either as testimony or as prayer. There are several ways one can mark his gratitude to God for a favour received from him. One can perform acts of charity, by helping the poor. He can also do so by helping the weak in the society: the children, widows, orphans, those in prison and others disadvantaged. He can sponsor a project that will be beneficial to God’s people, all he can do in thanksgiving. Some have built churches, presbyteries, convents, schools and many more as a form of giving thanks to God. Also one can decide to increase in virtue and work against his vices, or to work and be more productive wherever God has placed him to serve his people. We can imagine many other avenues through which we can continually express our thanks to God for his goodness and his love.
Since gratitude is so healthy, rich and rewarding, let us learn from the school of Mary who made gratitude her life. She lived gratitude, expressed gratitude in song and prayers and was filled with grace. Let us live the Eucharistic life which is thanksgiving.
We call on all Children of God to realize that as we give gratitude we grow in grace. We pray our Blessed Mother the Woman of gratitude to intercede for us obtaining for us the spirit of gratitude so that the grace of God will grow more abundantly in our lives.
Archbishop Valerian M. Okeke