Thanksgiving: The Norm of Christian Existence
“Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever” (Psalm 135:1 LXX).
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Several decades ago, a visitor from Western Europe came to the Soviet Union and met with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow at the time His Holiness Alexij (+1970). The visitor asked the Patriarch how he would succinctly describe the Orthodox Church in a few words. The primate’s response was clear.
“A Church that celebrates the Eucharist and offers constant thanksgiving to God.”
The answer seemed odd to the Westerner, who was expecting a reply akin to the Catholic or Protestant emphasis on social programs, catechism, foreign missions, and the like. The Patriarch continued.
“All of the Church’s activities are a joint effort between the Lord and us, but we begin foremost by placing ourselves in the proper place before God—in worship, in thanksgiving, in the very Eucharist itself!”
The Heart of the Faith
Thanksgiving then, which is what the term εὐχαριστία means in Greek, is the very norm of our existence as Christians. In fact, I submit to you that it represents the very norm of proper human existence—to stand before God humbly and with the profoundest gratitude for the multitude of gifts He has richly poured into our lives, for blessings “seen and unseen”, as we pray in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
The childlike reliance on God’s providence for our every need and want is core to our lives. It is, in a sense, what distinguishes us (or should) from individuals who have adopted and have implemented in their lives a secularist, non-theocentric worldview. We know that the Eucharist as celebrated by the Church is her chief rite, the holiest of actions, because it gathers the faithful and the cosmos together, before God, to place everyone and everything in their designated place, to reverse the damages of sin and evil, to bring man from his destructive individualism and exaggerated and pointless self-focus into a rediscovery of his personhood in communion with the rest of humanity and with the One who redeemed and sanctified our humanity by uniting His divinity to it, to make us gods by adoption as He is God by nature.
The Theology of Thanksgiving
In my university classes on liturgical theology, I often tell my students that the angels and the saints, who lived in this world as “earthly angels” (ἐπίγειοι ἄγγελοι), are primarily doxological beings. This means that they focus their prayer on thanksgiving and glorification to God rather than on supplication. Their chief need of simply being with God is fulfilled. The rest are “added extras.”
Ironically, the reverse is true of the majority of worshippers. Our time is mainly spent asking God for what we need, but how often do we find our thanksgiving prayers outnumbering our petitions? The Liturgy teaches us to become more angelic, more liturgical, more eucharistic and so, more fully human, which translates essentially into becoming more Christlike. In the Divine Liturgy, our prayer begins with the doxological glorification of God’s Kingdom. It concludes with our prayer for God to have mercy on us and save us. However, first things first—the priority indubitably is thanksgiving, which answers more prayers than petitions do. And I assure you it has something to do with seeking first the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42)—being with God.
My beloved, as we celebrate Thanksgiving this month, and every Sunday and weekday, let us ponder this “one thing needful.” We have it in our grasp, and it is expressed in various ways, especially with the people God places in our lives. May our hearts remain grateful to the Lord. The joy that will follow will remain ours forever!
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