Thankful for a Perfect Gift from Above
Every year on Thanksgiving Day, we give thanks to God for our wonderful life. We rejoice in the fruits of the earth (with or without feathers) gathered around a table of abundance. A good thing indeed! Saint Basil the Great advised us to do this as early as the 4th century:
When you sit down to eat, pray. When you eat bread, do so thanking Him for being so generous to you. If you drink wine, be mindful of Him who has given it to you for your pleasure and as a relief in sickness. When you dress, thank Him for His kindness in providing you with clothes. When you look at the sky and the beauty of the stars, throw yourself at God’s feet and adore Him who in His wisdom has arranged things in this way. Similarly, when the sun goes down and when it rises, when you are asleep or awake, give thanks to God, who created and arranged all things for your benefit, to have you know, love and praise their Creator.
To give thanks for all the abundance of God’s gifts is a wonderful thing, but the Holy Apostle Paul announces that even more than this is necessary. He calls us to give thanks to God at all times for all things! (Ephesians 5:20). It is easy to understand what “at all times” means, but what are these “all things” that we should be thankful for?
In our Church Library we have a very nice collection of big red books called the Menaia. It is a God-inspired compendium containing the services for all the Saints from the Church Calendar, for every day of the year. One part of these services, read during the morning service, or Matins, is called the Synaxarion. The Synaxarion includes the lives of the saints celebrated in any particular calendar date. Most of the times however, this part of the service is read quite fast and falls a little under noticed in the midst of the chanting that usually happens during Matins. Not really paying attention to what we read (after all we celebrate so many saints every day!) we read mechanically the lives of the saints, that sometimes are concentrated in short phrases like these:
On this day Saint Chariton was thrown into a pit of lime and met his end. On the same day Saint Vasilissa, having fought with the wild beasts and remained unharmed, met her end. The holy Martyr Archontion met his end by starvation. The holy new martyr Poledoros, who bore his witness in New Ephesus in 1794, met his end by hanging.
This is only part of the Synaxarion for September the 3rd. In just one day we see a saint being dissolved in lime, another one fighting with wild beasts, another starved to death and another hanged; all for the simple thing of being Christians. Shall we continue? If we would actually pay attention to what we read in the Synaxaria, we would cry at every word. Why we don’t do it then? Aren’t the lives of the saints worth more than a simple and unaffected glance-over? Are these trivial things? Is it simple to die by the sword, to be burned alive, to be eaten by lions? But our hearts have grown cold, because we live lives of comfort and plenty and the sufferings of the saints, diluted by time and lack of interest, are foreign to us.
So let us ask again the question what are the “all things”? Are we supposed to give thanks only for those that give us pleasure and comfort, which make our life easier, what we generally consider to be positive? How about the trials that God allowed these martyrs to go through? Were they to give thanks even for those? Rather than us answering, let us hear the saints speak. Here is how the New Martyrs Joseph and Isaac from Georgia prayed before they were beheaded by the emir of Theodosiopolis:
O Holy King and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, look down upon Thy servants with mercy and receive us as a holy sacrifice. Number us among Thy martyrs and make us worthy of the crown of righteousness, for every good and perfect gift is from above and comes down from Thee, the Father of lights (c.f. James 1:17)!
They actually considered their death “a perfect gift from above”! What else, if not this, is truly giving thanks for all things?
Around Thanksgiving Day, my kids always come from school with a nice list of things their class is thankful for. It is an exercise meant to teach them to be thankful, to appreciate what they have. Time and again what they come up with are the obvious things: their parents, their food, their clothing, their house, family, friends, schools, teachers, turkey, gravy, pumpkin pie and the rest of the fixings. Despite the good intent of this exercise, I think it is not complete, because it gives them a false impression of what truly our relationship of thanksgiving to God should be. Concentrating only on the positive may render God in a Great Provider of things we need and nothing else; a Great Benefactor that is there to respond to our wishes when and how we need them. This is deeply rooted in our consumerist society. I heard an interview on the radio a few years back in which a writer of fortune cookies messages was saying that they had to reinvent the fortune cookies for the American population because we do not like to hear that bad things could happen to us, even if most understand that this type of fortune telling is no real! We just don’t like to hear it.
God however is not an entrepreneur fortune teller, and He provides us with what we actually need, not with what the marketing says that we need. We might have a limited material perspective, anchored in our short earthly lives, but He has a heavenly view rooted in the eternity of the human existence. He knows what we need and He gives it abundantly, although it might not fit our plans. Growing in this understanding is the only thing that will move us closer to rightly giving thanks for all things.
This is why I choose this year to be thankful for the Holy Martyrs and Confessors of the Faith that teach us an important lesson on properly giving thanks to God. So I am thankful for the Holy Martyr Paraskevi because by her loosing the eyes under torture I am able to see more clearly now the crowns of martyrdom prepared for all those that take the heavy yoke of the true faith. I am thankful to The Holy Martyr Lawrence, the Archdeacon, for by having his body burnt on a hot iron grill he taught me that by working the virtues and keeping the fast in our bodies they become a whole burnt sacrifice to Christ. I am thankful to St. Maximus the Confessor because by losing his tongue he showed us that our mouths should never stop praising the Lord and confessing the Incarnate Truth. I am thankful to the Holy Martyrs Adrian and Natalie of Nicomedia for by having their legs broken on an anvil they showed me the way I should walk to God. I am thankful to St. John of Damascus for by loosing, and then regaining, his right hand he directed us to always do what’s right for the glory of God! I thank the Holy Unmercenary Doctors and Martyrs Cosmas, Damianos and Panteleimonos for they have healed our souls from the scourge of selfishness and showed us the way of love thorough our neighbor.
I thank you, All Holy Martyrs, for being at the foundation of our Church, feeding Her roots from the bountiful ground fertilized with your precious relics. Intercede to God abundantly, we pray to you, that His will be done in our lives, every day, and that we learn to properly give thanks for all things He so generously provides for us unceasingly!
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