November 17, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Praising God and giving thanks for the many gifts we receive

As children, we were taught to say “thank you” when someone complimented us, gave us a gift or did us a favor.

In addition to our gratitude for the “big things” in life, it’s also our custom to say “thank you” when a waiter refills a water glass, or when a stranger holds the elevator door, or when we receive a compliment from a friend.

These little gifts of time and attention may not be large in themselves, but our response says a lot about how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us.

The habit of saying “thank you” helps to remind us that everything we have comes to us, originally and ultimately, as a gift. When we freely acknowledge our indebtedness to God and others by saying “thank you,” we recognize the fact that none of us is an island, and that we are all interconnected as sisters and brothers in the one family of God.

Through gratitude, we demonstrate a basic courtesy and respect toward all human beings, but we also free ourselves from the burdens of arrogance, resentment and isolation from the rest of the human family.

The Gospel story of the 10 lepers which we read on Thanksgiving Day can be viewed from several points of view. We can consider the story from the vantage point of the nine who were cured, but who didn’t return to say thanks. Perhaps they didn’t realize they had been healed. Or maybe they just didn’t want to talk about it or to accept the gift of healing from someone else.

We can also look at this story from Jesus’ perspective. From the point of view of his humanity, it must have hurt to reach out to 10 people, and only one returns to say “thank you.”

I like to think about the one leper who returned to Jesus to say “thank you.” St. Luke tells us that the grateful leper was not a Jew, but a Samaritan. That means, of course, that he was an outcast and a foreigner who had no reason to expect anything from Jesus.

One of the ironies of this story is the fact that nine who were Jews did not return to say thanks, but the one who was a foreigner “turned back, praising God with a loud voice, and fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.”

After asking, “Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus simply tells the Samaritan, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

I like to look at the story from the grateful leper’s perspective because I think it’s clear that this man’s gratitude disposed him to a qualitatively different kind of healing. Ten people were healed of a devastating, incurable physical illness, but (so far as we know) only one received the additional gift that comes from saying “thanks.”

We can only imagine the fear, anger and loneliness that comes with a horrible disease like leprosy. Such an awful disease must surely be accompanied by feelings of the most severe bitterness and resentment. Caught in the throes of this kind of living nightmare, it would be easy to lose all sense of gratitude for the gift of life or for the blessings of political or religious freedom.

Perhaps we can gain some appreciation for the emotional and spiritual freedom which the one grateful leper must have felt when he got up off the ground and headed back to Samaria.

By praising God and giving thanks, the grateful leper let go of his resentment toward God and his anger toward a society which had shunned him and cursed him.

By saying “thank you,” the outcast re-established his connection to the family of God, and he opened his heart to the kind of healing which can only take place when we free ourselves from the spiritual burdens of pride and angry resentment.

Through gratitude, the leper from Samaria was healed and set free in a way that the other nine were not.

This is the special gift that the grateful leper received: In addition to his physical cleanness, the one who gave thanks and praise to God could also boast of a clean heart, a joyful spirit and a readiness to let go of the past and begin again as a new man whose faith had made him well. He gained new freedom of spirit.

Healing and wholeness come when our hearts are clean and when we can praise God and give thanks for the many gifts which we receive even in times of trial and adversity. Let Thanksgiving Day be a timely reminder of our loving God. †

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