Thankfulness, I read somewhere, is not an innate quality in human beings. We have to teach children to say “thank you” to the nice lady for the piece of candy – or you won’t get anything next time. Going instead by what comes naturally, we are more inclined to yell “Trick or Treat!” And like most of our neighbors, we are just as willing to spend money for candy at the grocery store to keep little ghouls and goblins happy who come knocking at the door, than deal with uprooted vegetation or toilet tissue hanging from the trees in the front yard. Possessing the human quality of thankfulness still only inclines me to express gratitude for things I am convinced I deserve anyway. So when I fork over money in exchange for merchandise and I say “thank you,” I am simply engaging in good old fashioned capitalist behavior. If I find the service enjoyable, I might be nice and smile some. If I’m having a bad day, I can just get what I came for and leave. If the service is particularly horrible, I might be tempted to express my annoyance by exhibiting ‘attitude’ or saying otherwise pleasant things with noticeable displeasure. So even the ‘thank you’ may not be sincere, because true thankfulness is not limited to external expression.
When I am done with my meal at the restaurant, I am presented a bill requiring financial compensation in exchange for the food that I had just consumed. That is fair business practice. State sales taxes are added to my food bill because the constitution gives government the right to regulate all forms of commerce. Thank you very much. Then I am expected to observe an unspoken social custom of adding a percentage in gratuity as a way of showing my appreciation to the proprietors for having been extended the privilege of dining in their fine establishment. Now I don’t mind complying even with unspoken social customs, but we might as well call it a tax. However, there is definitely room for genuine gratitude and appreciation when the customer freely goes over and above what is required by law and unspoken social custom. And in turn, the wait-staff will remember to express their gratitude by being extra solicitous when I return for another meal.
Social customs, unspoken or otherwise, contribute to our understanding of thankfulness. It has become second nature for us. We are inclined to say ‘thank you’ even when dealing with difficult people and situations, if only to force ourselves to be polite, and maybe avoid even more trouble. We say ‘thank you’ when we get change back from the cashier, when someone holds the door for us, when customer service puts us on hold, and when the nice police officer hands us a speeding ticket. We say ‘thank you’ when the other driver yields the right of way (even when he shouldn’t), when we receive an award for something we accomplished, when the incessant whining does in fact cease, and when the expensive electronic equipment finally decides to do what you bought it to do.
Since thankfulness is not an innate human quality, it must be taught to us. Instead, what comes natural are words like “mine,” and “I deserve it,” and “you owe me.” Our Christian faith is meant to lift up, enlighten, and transform our natural human tendencies, our pleasant social customs and even our reluctant virtues.
We might easily consider thankfulness and gratitude as the natural response to kindness extended to us. But when true kindness is bestowed, it is seldom earned or deserved. True kindness flows from an abundant spirit that does not expect anything in return, not payment, not equal treatment, not a word of thanks. Its only concern is to share of itself. This is exactly what we believe of the God who created us and the whole universe we live in, who was absolutely content and fulfilled in himself, having no need of anything or anyone to complete him. But our faith teaches us that God in his goodness chose to create the world that he might be surrounded by many with whom to share of himself. Goodness is never content to keep to itself. Light is not light unless it shines upon darkness. Joy is not joy unless it draws others to rejoice with it. Forgiveness is not forgiveness unless it restores to wholeness what is broken. And God is not God unless he gives to others a share of his own being and life.
This is the God and Father of Jesus Christ who came among us to teach us love for one another. He spoke about forgiveness, compassion, justice and reconciliation. Then he showed by his own actions the true meaning of his teachings, giving of himself totally that we might be restored to the fullness of God’s grace, asking nothing in return but that we love one another. He established a new covenant between us and God by offering himself in sacrifice on a cross, and he commanded us to break bread and share a cup of wine until he returned at the end of time. This meal we share is the memorial of his sacrifice, the embodiment of God’s desire to share himself completely with us. We call it Eucharist, which is Greek for Thanksgiving. By this memorial we speak with Jesus Christ our “thanksgiving” to the Father for God’s many acts of kindness and God’s continuing compassion and mercy on our behalf. And we profess faith in him by offering our lives in service to our neighbor.
So whenever we express thankfulness we hope to reflect that attitude that is Christ’s. He acknowledged the goodness of the Father and freely chose to give of himself fully and without expecting anything in return. When we imitate his example, when we place ourselves willingly at the service of others, when we are less concerned about receiving anything back, we show our desire to be as God is. When we are genuinely thankful, thankful in the manner of Jesus Christ, when we are thankful in a manner that is enlightened by our Christian faith, and not simply as natural human virtue or social custom might compel us, we ourselves become Eucharist, food for our sisters and brothers, food that shares the life of God that flourishes within us, food for the life of the world.