It is right, and a good and joyful thing…

Nearly every Sunday, Episcopalians hear the words of introduction to “The Great Thanksgiving” a long narrative liturgical prayer that is the central part of the Eucharist.

Celebrant: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.  

People:  It is right to give God thanks and praise.

Celebrant:  It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…

Whether it is “Form A,B,C or D” in the Book of Common Prayer, or some other version from some other liturgical tradition, The Great Thanksgiving always recounts in some form or fashion the very first communion, the “Last Supper” on the night before Jesus’ Crucifixion. This uniquely Christian tradition symbolically transforms the simple gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and offers great thanks for the gift of human redemption.

While it may be a “good and joyful thing” for us humans to truly give thanks, it’s also damn hard.  (Maybe that’s why we, as a nation, can only manage it once a year.)

Jeff Bridges in Starman: A keen observer of the human condition.

Jeff Bridges in Starman: “Do you want to know what I like best about your species?”

Being in a state of genuine gratefulness is, for me, full of mixed emotions. If I am really honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that much of what I have I did not earn.  Yes, while it is true that I can and should pat myself on the back and give myself due credit for the hard work I have done to help put food on my family’s table, it is also true that the quality of the table, as well as the quantity of the food upon it, have been determined not only by my labors but by sheer accident of birth.

Truly serious contemplation of all these blessings can bring such uncomfortable feelings of unworthiness, and maybe even guilt. I confess that I tend to resist it. No amount of rationalization can help me escape the plain and undeniable fact that although I have worked hard for what I have, others have worked far harder, and have far less.

And yet, it is also a mysterious and equally undeniable truth that we as human beings do have this capacity, not just in times of bounty but even in the most wretched conditions, to “always and everywhere” (as the Prayer Book urges us) be thankful. Stranger still, it often seems that the less folks have, the more grateful they are for what little they have.

There is this wonderful line from the movie Starman decades ago, where Jeff Bridges plays some alien who has taken the form of a human. He is slowly dying because he cannot adjust to earth’s atmosphere as the “bad guys” from the government are closing in on him. In one of the final scenes, one of the “good guys” has managed to find him in his hideout waiting for his mothership to return, and they have a brief dialogue.

“Do you want to know what I like most about your species?” asks the Bridges’ alien character, ashen and gasping for breath.

“Please…,” urges the good guy.

“When things are at their worst,” the Starman whispers, “you humans are at your best.”

And I think that’s true in a weird mysterious way. I am coming to believe more and more that such a wondrous and wonderful human trait is NOT of our own doing, alone.  Somehow, something or someone (or Something or Someone?) surrounds us,  protects us, nudges us forward, not taking away calamity, but somehow being there fully present in the midst of it.

As I go into this particular Thanksgiving, with various calamities and crises swirling around the globe (as well as inside my head), my belief in that Something or Someone — shaky and unsure but indeed present — is becoming for me both the object and source of “most humble and hearty thanks.”

All of this has led me to yet another mysterious but undeniable truth. When I can manage to adopt a true “attitude of gratitude,” it seems somehow to beget more blessings, or at the very least, my awareness of them.

That is no small thing, which of course is another blessing in itself.

But chiefly are we bound to praise you…

“But chiefly are we bound to praise you for the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the true Paschal Lamb, who was sacrificed for us, and has taken away the sin of the world…”

For most of Easter, this paragraph has been a clanging gong. It is of course the “proper preface” for the Easter season, inserted into the Eucharistic Prayer.  For some reason this year, it has acted like the proverbial dope-slap to the back of my head. “Yo! Pay attention! THIS is why you are here.”

One phrase in particular reminds worshippers that while there are many, many good reasons we should praise God, “CHIEFLY we are BOUND” by the supremely mysterious and astoundingly good news of Jesus’ resurrection. Those two words, “chiefly” and “bound” offer layer upon layer of Graceful insight into God’s nature, and our own.

This little bit of liturgical turn-of-phrase reminds me that THIS singular event — the bursting forth of new and unexpected life from a lifeless tomb — is the MAIN reason, the highest priority, the ultimate showing of Divine Purpose and Love. And even more, this prayer says to me that if I can even come close to recognizing the awesome glory of the Resurrection, then I am “bound to praise…”  Such a response naturally and inexorably flows from such realization in my mind and from my lips and in my life.

Indeed I do at times feel “bound” — wrapped up tight in things that are far, far beyond my understanding. The Nativity, Jesus’ baptism, the Transfiguration, the parables and miracles and stories of compassion all spark incomparable feelings and insatiable desire to know more and more. They all lead me, however hesitantly, to let go my lawyer’s quest for more evidence and rational, reasoned explanation, and to believe and trust the glimpses of Truth that are revealed in those stories.

But, there is nothing — NOTHING — that comes close to stirring that pot of faith like the Resurrection.  To believe in THAT mystery is to be radically different. To fully fathom that this one solitary human is the “true Paschal Lamb” for all of humanity is to be quite set apart from the normal ways of this world. To truly buy into the notion that a fellow member of our species walked, talked, laughed, loved, lived and died among us, but then overcame death, is to be changed forever.

I wish I could say that I was fully there. I wish I could say I have utter confidence to jump off the swing into the abyss, to Trust that my flight — and my landing — will be in safe, Graceful hands. But I’m not. Yet.

But Lord knows I’m trying.  Lord knows.