Spirituality for Today – December 2008 – Volume 13, Issue 5
The Year Of Saint Paul: A 20 Part Series
Part 6: Thanksgiving With Saint Paul
The other day, someone said to me, "Thank goodness Thanksgiving is almost here!" My friend meant to say that he is looking forward to a few days of rest and relaxation next Thursday and Friday!
Of course, we have to do more than "thank goodness" at Thanksgiving. As members of the Church, the Body of Christ, and as citizens of the United States of America, we need to unite in giving thanks to God who has blessed us "more than we could ever ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20). We should be grateful to live in a democracy and grateful for an orderly transition of power. Even in difficult and uncertain economic times such as these, we live in a land abounding in blessings and opportunity.
And, like many of you, I look forward to spending some relaxing moments at Thanksgiving with family and friends. There is so much for which we should be grateful. The GNP and our investments might be slipping, but the praise and thanks we owe to God is as great as ever.
So as you go about getting ready for Thanksgiving, please consider a simple suggestion: spend your Thanksgiving with Saint Paul. If you really want to give thanks to God, Saint Paul is "the man to see." In fact, I read somewhere that Saint Paul is "the apostle and theologian of thanksgiving." And it's true: his letters are suffused with praise and thanksgiving.
In this Year of Saint Paul, let's allow the Apostle to show us how it's done. If we take Saint Paul's words and example to heart, our prayer of thanksgiving will never be the same.
An unscientific glance at Saint Paul's letters shows that he frequently uses the words of praise and thanksgiving. Even the absence of a word count, it's fair to say that giving God thanks and praise is not optional but, rather, a very basic part of what Saint Paul calls "life in Christ." We can better understand how this is so by looking at what prompted Saint Paul to give God thanks.
Let me further suggest that we follow this up with a two-part examination of conscience: First, do we give God thanks as a regular part of our lives? Second, for what do we give thanks? Is our list the same as Saint Paul's?
Perhaps the first thing we notice is that Saint Paul begins most of his letters with a greeting that expresses praise and thanksgiving. The only exceptions to this rule are Galatians, 1 Timothy, and Titus. In all the rest we find Saint Paul introducing his letters by thanking God for those to whom he was writing. What was Paul doing? Some say Paul was just being polite; the custom of the day was to begin letters with a mannerly greeting intermingled with praise for the recipient.
But Saint Paul does something more. He transforms the customary way of introducing letters into acts of genuine praise and thanksgiving to God.
Saint Paul typically gives thanks to God in and through Christ for the communities or local churches to which he is writing. In Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, Saint Paul employs hymns of praise used in the early liturgy as part of an extended greeting. Both his initial greetings and the hymns he quotes masterfully link what Christ has done for our redemption with the life that the recipients of his letters are or should be leading.
In this way, Paul gives thanks to God the Father for His great deeds of salvation revealed and accomplished by Christ but now at work in the Christian communities to which he was writing. For example, in Ephesians (1:3) we read: "Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has bestowed on us in Christ every spiritual blessing in the heavens." Here Paul gives thanks for the Ephesians because they have been chosen in Christ to be the adopted sons and daughters of God, to find in Christ redemption from their sins, and to understand by the light of faith God's mysterious plan of salvation. As the Christians at Ephesus read his words, they must have been filled anew with praise and thanks for their election in Christ.
We find something similar in Philippians. As we saw in previous columns, Saint Paul had a particular affection for the church at Philippi. In Philippians 1:3-5, he writes: "I give thanks to my God every time I think of you - which is constantly, in every prayer I utter - rejoicing, as I plead on your behalf, at the way you have all continually helped promote the Gospel from the very first day." Twenty centuries later, we can feel Paul's affection for them in these words.
Later on, Paul addresses to them the kenotic hymn (Philippians 2:6-11) which celebrates the mystery wherein Christ, the eternal Son of God, emptied Himself, assumed our humanity, and died to save us out of loving obedience. In words that swept up the Philippians in joyful thanks and praise, he concludes: "So that at Jesus' name, every knee must bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father: JESUS CHRIST IS LORD!" (2:10-11).
You can find many other such examples of "grateful greetings" in Paul's writings: Romans 1:8 ff; 1 Corinthians 1:4-6; Colossians 1:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-4; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; Philomen 4f; 2 Timothy 1:3.
Questions for Reflection:
If Saint Paul were writing to us, would he find in our lives sufficient motive for giving thanks and praise to God, or would we merit the rebuke dished out to the Galatians: "O senseless and foolish Galatians" (Galatians 3:1)!
Is there evidence that Christ is at work in us and in those we love?
Do we, like Paul, express our gratitude to God in our affection for those around us or those for whom we bear some responsibility? For example, do we priests thank God for the people we serve, even when we feel tired or overworked?
Do you parents give thanks for your families, including those members who are neediest?
Saint Paul also taught that it is our duty to give thanks to God. Paul repeats this theme frequently because he so frequently proclaims the blessing, grace, and favor that God shows us in Christ Jesus. Thanksgiving is the response we owe for the grace God showers upon us. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul writes: "Rejoice always, never cease praying, render constant thanks; such is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." To the divided and self-satisfied congregation at Corinth, Paul speaks about the duty of giving thanks amid the hardships and dangers of preaching the Gospel in a hostile environment: "You must help us by your prayers," he writes, "so that on our behalf God may be thanked for the gift granted us through prayers of so many" (2 Corinthians 1:11).
Later on, Paul reminds the Corinthians that he did not come to preach himself but rather the "the glory of God shining on the face of Christ." Calling himself "an earthen vessel," Paul speaks fearlessly of the persecution and the danger of death he has been able to face in the light of Christ's resurrection - dangers which the Corinthians have been largely spared. Celebrating the triumph of grace amid adversity, Paul adds, "Indeed, everything is ordered to your benefit, so that the grace bestowed in abundance may bring greater glory to God because they who give thanks are many" (2 Corinthians 4:15). If Saint Paul often faced suffering alone, he did not wish to be alone in giving thanks to God for His goodness.
Questions for Reflection:
At every Mass, in the "dialogue" leading into the Preface, we say: "It is right to give Him [God] thanks and praise."
Do we trip over these words without really meaning what we say?
Do we, in fact, believe it is our bounden duty to thank God for sharing His life with us?
Do we express our thanks by faithfully attending Mass each Sunday?
Can we, like Paul, not only suffer for our faith but also give thanks to God amid the hardship which bearing witness to the Gospel often entails?
Paul also teaches us that we give thanks to God by fulfilling our vocations and by leading good moral lives. As we have already seen, Paul put his life on the line for the Gospel so that many people would unite in giving God thanks and praise. As we can see in letter after letter, Paul gives thanks because of the growing number of believers who come together for liturgy to give thanks and praise to God. Paul also teaches that thanksgiving to God is the motive for our charity.
When Paul asked the church at Corinth to donate to the impoverished mother-church at Jerusalem, his motive was not merely to alleviate practical needs; his motive was to prompt the church at Jerusalem to give renewed thanks and praise to God. He writes: "The administering of this public benefit not only supplies the needs of the members of the church but also overflows in much gratitude to God" (2 Corinthians 9:12).
Saint Paul also teaches that our whole life should really be a protracted act of praise and thanksgiving to God. At Colossians 3:16f, we read: "Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness. Let the word of Christ, rich as it is, dwell in you. In wisdom made perfect, instruct and admonish one another. Sing gratefully to God in hymns and inspired songs. Whatever you do, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus. Give thanks to God the Father through Him." Saint Paul follows that with practical instructions on living the Christian life. Elsewhere Paul tells us to "glorify God in our bodies" (Romans 12:1) and presents praise and thanksgiving as the motive for avoiding impurity and gluttony. Those who engage in such practices dishonor the true and living God. "Their belly is their god," he warns (Philippians 3:19; Ephesians 5:5-6).
Questions for Reflection:
Do we see our vocation (marriage, priesthood, religious life) as the primary way we've been called to give thanks and praise to God?
What is the motive of our charity?
Is it to cause praise and thanks among those whose lives we are privileged to touch? Do we give thanks on the most routine day?
And do we glorify God by keeping His commandments with the interior blessedness Jesus tells us about in the Beatitudes?
Finally, Paul exhorts us to give thanks not merely in public worship and private prayer. As we have already seen, Paul expresses thanks to God from hymns used in the liturgy. Paul's letters are filled with admonitions to join together in thankful worship and his letters are filled with eruptions of praise and thanksgiving. For example, he writes to the Church at Ephesus: "Give thanks to God the Father always and for everything in the name of Christ" (Ephesians 5:20; Colossians 3:16f). At Romans 7:25, Paul speaks of his own wretchedness but adds, "All praise to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
In 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 Paul explicitly refers to the Eucharist. When we worthily partake of the Eucharist, Paul tells us, "we proclaim the death of the Lord." When we unworthily partake of the Eucharist, we call down judgment upon ourselves (1 Corinthians 11:26-28).
Prayer in the assembly of believers is complemented by private prayer. At Philippians 4:6, Saint Paul instructs us, "... present your needs to God in every form of prayer and in petitions full of gratitude." The prayer of petition and the prayer of thankfulness are thus intertwined.
So fundamental is an attitude of praise and thanksgiving that Paul tells the Colossians that they must be "overflowing with gratitude" (Colossians 2:7; see also 4:2).
Even our ordinary conversation should be marked by a spirit of thanks. Paul writes: "Nor should there be any obscene, silly, or suggestive talk; all that is out of place. Instead, give thanks" (Ephesians 5:4).
Questions for Reflection:
Is not absence from the Eucharist, Christ's gift of self to us, symptomatic of ingratitude?
Are we too busy to say thanks in the way the Lord has asked of us?
Do we go to Mass to be entertained or to give God thanks and praise?
Do we pray in private? When we do, are prayers of praise and petition intermingled?
Do we show thanks by praying for the needs of others? Is our ordinary "table talk" characterized by praise for God or by the ingratitude of "silly and suggestive" talk?
Clearly, Saint Paul had a lot to say about praise and thanksgiving. In fact, he speaks as one who gives thanks because his whole life has been transformed by Christ. It is the transfigured heart that gives God thanks and praise because it finds joy in reflecting the beauty and goodness of His heart.
So, amid the festivities of Thanksgiving, let's try to do two things: First, reserve some time for private prayer. Pick one or two passages from Saint Paul on thankfulness and make it the basis of an extended prayer.
Second, go to Mass on Thanksgiving (and every Sunday). The Eucharist is the supreme prayer of thanks and praise - it's the one Jesus offers for our sake; it's the way in which you and I are caught up in the Eternal Son's perfect praise and thanks to His loving Father.
Those two simple steps could make this the best Thanksgiving ever.
The Year Of Saint Paul: A 20 Part Series
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