November 20, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

Grateful people are happy people

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

“Thanksgiving Day is a harvest festival celebrated primarily in the United States and Canada. Traditionally, it is a time to give thanks for the harvest and express gratitude in general. While it may have been religious in origin, Thanksgiving is now primarily identified as a secular holiday.” (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope that you are enjoying this very special time of year—surrounded by your family and friends!

Holidays can be hard times for people who are in poor health, homeless or who are experiencing emotional or financial difficulties. Let’s be sure to pray for those who are less fortunate than we are, and let’s help them every way we can—especially as we prepare for the Advent and Christmas seasons.

The encyclopedia tells us that Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, not a religious holy day. That’s technically true, but for those of us who are believers, it is impossible to “express gratitude in general.”

Our thanks go to the God who created us and who sustains us by his grace. We Christians believe that this God is a person who knows us individually and who cares about each one of us. When we give thanks to him, it is a very intimate and personal thing.

We Catholics celebrate the holy Eucharist (whose name comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving) every day, but on this day, Thanksgiving, we give special thanks to God for all his abundant blessings. That includes the gift of life itself, our parents and families, the love that we share with spouses and children, our friends, our freedom as citizens of the United States of America, our vocations as disciples of Jesus Christ, our material possessions, our intellectual gifts and talents, and much, much more.

Gratitude is a powerful virtue. It opens our hearts to the healing power of God’s grace. It helps us look beyond our own selfish wants and fears to the gifts we receive from others, and to the opportunities we have to share with others, and to return thanks to God for all that he has generously given to us.

St. Alphonsus Liguori, the founder of the Redemptorists, my religious congregation, once wrote about the encounter between a priest who was eager to learn more about the spiritual life and a beggar who was barefooted and in rags.

One day, the two happened to meet. The priest greeted the beggar saying, “Good day, my friend.”

The beggar responded, “Thank you, sir, for your kind wishes, but I do not recall ever having had a ‘bad’ day.”

“Then God has certainly given you a very happy life,” said the priest.

“That is very true, sir,” the beggar replied. “I have never been unhappy.”

When the priest asked how this could be true given the man’s wretched condition, the beggar said, “This is the reason: When I have nothing to eat, I give thanks to God; when it rains or snows, I bless God’s providence; when someone insults me, drives me away, or otherwise mistreats me, I give glory to God.”

The beggar continued, “I said I’ve never had an unhappy day, and it’s the truth, because I am accustomed to will unreservedly what God wills. Whatever happens to me, sweet or bitter, I gladly receive from his hands as what is best for me. Hence my unvarying happiness.”

St. Alphonsus told this story to admonish us. If a poor beggar can thank God in spite of all the hardships he must endure, shouldn’t we be able to do the same? Shouldn’t we have the faith and the courage to look beyond our own needs, wants and fears to the gifts we have received from God and from so many others?

Grateful people are happy people. Let me say that again: Grateful people are happy people. They don’t focus on their problems, but on their blessings. Their hearts are filled with love even when their stomachs (or their pockets) are empty.

When we celebrate Thanksgiving next week, let’s say a word of thanks to God for all his blessings. Let’s say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the people who have shared their gifts with us. And let’s also say a prayer for all who are poor, homeless or hungry on Thanksgiving Day. The poor have much to teach us, especially when they remind us to be grateful.

Thanksgiving Day is not just a secular holiday. It is a moment of grace for all of us who have been blessed by God with abundant gifts, including family, friends, co-workers, strangers and even enemies.

Our prayers of thanksgiving have the power to bring us hope, healing and great joy. May we thank God always for his goodness to us! †

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