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.)
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.