By Fr. Mark Sietsema
Mothers are curious people aren’t they? All mothers somehow, regardless of their background, learn exactly the same things to say to their children—like when they call you by your full name when you’ve done something wrong. When a child is given anything, a cookie or a compliment, every mother in the same words and the same tone of voice asks, “Now, what do you say?”
Of course, the answer Mom is looking for is: “Thank you.”
Mothers want their children to have a reflex of thankfulness. A reflex is an automatic response. When the doctor hits the knee with the little hammer, the leg twitches; and when someone is kind to us, we should likewise have a reflex response of gratitude. But unlike the knee-twitch, the reflex of thankfulness should not be an unthinking response. Did you know that the English words think and thank are related to the same Latin root? Thankfulness goes hand in hand with thoughtfulness. We should be grateful because we truly appreciate, from the mind and from the heart, what has been done for us.
Saint Mark the Ascetic, in a letter to a spiritual son, repeatedly tells him to think and be thankful (Philokalia, Vol. 1, p. 148): “This, my son, is how you should begin your life according to God. You should continually and unceasingly call to mind all the blessings which God in His love has bestowed upon you in the past … from the beginning of your life until the present, and call them repeatedly to mind in accordance with the words: ‘Forget not all His benefits’ (Psalm 103:2).”
Notice what Saint Mark says: we begin the spiritual life with gratitude; it is an essential part of entering the Kingdom. We were made to give thanks to God, made to praise Him continually for His grace to us. The Apostle Paul says, “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). That which mothers know instinctively and try to instill in us reflexively is this essential component of true humanity: a thankful spirit.
God saved us in Christ for the express purpose that we should give Him thanks forever in gratitude and love. The Apostle Peter says, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a special people, in order that you should show forth the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). We were made for praise!
Life as a citizen of the Kingdom when we begin to feel this deep inner sense of indebtedness to God and then express gratitude to God for all He has done. This thanksgiving should not be for show or out of habit, but from the heart. We are not called to be “praise-robots,” just mouthing the words of the Liturgy or of prayer; we are called to be thoughtful thankers, meditating on all God has done for us personally and singing our praise to Him for it. An ungrateful Christian is really a contradiction in terms; only a grateful Christian is a grace-filled Christian. The Scriptures says that complaining, murmuring, grousing and griping are serious sins, and according to Saint Paul (Romans 1:21), an attitude of ingratitude is at the heart of the world’s apostasy and perversion.
We were made for praise—it is a part of the natural function of a human being to look in love towards the Source of our life and to bless Him. When we go against the grain of our nature, we pay the price in sin and sickness and depression. When we open our spiritual eyes, though, and see all that God has done for us, when we are able to “accept with gratitude everything that comes, whether it is good or whether it appears to be bad, and to remain undisturbed in all things,” then we become the persons that God made us to be, as Saint Peter of Damascus says (Philokalia, Vol. 3, p. 174). The healthiest person is the one who sees the hand of God in all things and says continually, “Glory to You, O Lord!”
Thanksgiving is the breath of the saints. The saints would give thanks, not just one day out of the year or when times were good. The holy martyrs, even in their agony, raised their hands to God and thanked Him for the privilege of being counted worthy to die like Christ. The Blessed Theotokos, though she knew that a sword would pierce her heart, magnified the Lord and rejoiced in God her Savior. Jesus Christ Himself, holding in His spotless hands the bread and the wine in which would be revealed the excruciating breaking of His body and the shedding of His blood, nevertheless gave thanks to God for these Gifts (1 Corinthians 11: 24).
In everything, then, we should give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for us. By so doing, we become the kind of persons our mothers want us to be, and the people our Father designed us to be. We were made for praise, and on the day of Thanksgiving especially let us “be all that we can be” by giving thoughtful thanks from the heart to God. Take some time this year to think about what the Lord has done for you, and let your “thinksgiving” lead to sincere thanksgiving.
To you and to your families here and everywhere, I wish a “Happy Thanksgiving” and a joyous Christmas season ahead!