With many of the Commandments, precepts of the Church, and teachings of Scripture, most people of faith are willing to grant that under certain circumstances the rules do not apply. For example, the fifth commandment is “Thou shalt not kill.” Killing is a very serious matter; yet most religions acknowledge that their members may “break” the commandment in situations of self-defense or for a “just” war. In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, though, St. Paul gives us a order that seems to allow for no exceptions: “In all circumstances give thanks, for that is God’s will for you” (1 Thes 5:18). How much more forceful could Paul be? By saying it is “God’s will for you,” he gives these words the force of a commandment. There seem to be no circumstances in which we are excused from being grateful. It does not seem to matter to Paul whether we actually feel grateful, whether our finances are depleted, whether we are in good health, whether we are happy with our spouse, whether our children are doing well in school or in life, whether we are pleased with our job or our landlord or our teacher or our church. Why would Paul be such a stickler on this one point? Does he think that God has such a giant ego that God wants to be hearing expressions of gratitude all the time.
I am sure that was not Paul’s point. If there were ever a self-actualized being, it is God! Who really needs to hear expressions of gratitude? We do. And, as the Scripture makes clear, we need to express our gratitude more than once a year at Thanksgiving. Paul is being so insistent, I believe, because gratitude is one of the most important gifts that we can offer one another. Do you think, for example, that the divorce rate in this country would continue to hover around 50% if husbands and wives remembered to say “thank you” to one another more often. Do you think we would have so much trouble bringing generations together or bringing warring races or warring nations to the bargaining table if we expressed our gratitude more often for small steps made in the direction of peace and understanding? Would we have better quality teachers and a higher level of learning in our schools if more parents remembered to express their gratitude to teachers and did not just show up at school when they had a complaint? Would the morale on the police force and the quality of the service offered be higher if our police officers heard “thank you” more often? Would there not be less “gridlock in Washington” if our legislators spent less time “firing up their base” and more time expressing gratitude to one another? Would not our churches of every denomination have a stronger impact on the world if their members were known primarily for the spirit of gratitude that they carried with them wherever they went?
Terrible things happen to most of us during the course of a lifetime; and St. Paul is not telling us that we should be thankful for cancer or divorce or being abused or scammed or having the bottom fall out of our stock portfolio. Yet if we reflect on these unpleasant and unsettling events carefully, we can usually find some gift hidden in the wreckage. Maybe the sudden threat to my health or the loss of financial resources has helped me focus on what in the long run matters the most—love of God and love of neighbor. Maybe the sudden loss of a job has helped me realize that I am more than what I do and what I earn. Maybe I can be grateful for the happy years I was able to spend with a loved one who has passed away and try to incorporate some of their wonderful ways into my life.
For a long time Thanksgiving was known as practically a commercial free holiday. That is no longer the case. In recent years we have seen the backward creep of store openings, first into the early morning hours of the day after Thanksgiving and now into the afternoon and evening of Thanksgiving Day itself. It is foolish to blame the stores for this, since they would not be opening for business earlier and earlier if they had not found a public anxious to rush in as soon as they opened their doors. But St. Paul reminds us that what most of us really need cannot be bought in a store. It can only be given away. It is our gratitude. Have a Happy Thanksgiving and a gratitude filled year!