True Thanksgiving

The word “eucharist” may be defined in a few ways, but one of the original translations from the Greek is “thanksgiving” or “to give thanks.”1

In modern culture, we often associate thankfulness with a sense of being happy, or perhaps being content with something. We may think of the song from The Sound of Music that lists some “favorite things” and say that we are thankful for our own “favorite things.”2

However, the ancient understanding of thankfulness had a greater depth than only “appreciation.” Thanksgiving involved a specific memory, or more accurately, the act of remembering. Thanksgiving had to do with remembering what had been done for you, and being aware that you owed a debt, in this case, of gratitude, for that gift. We maintain this understanding in our liturgy today, as the Catechism teaches us about anamnesis: “In the Liturgy of the Word the Holy Spirit ‘recalls’ to the assembly all that Christ has done for us . . . The Holy Spirit who thus awakens the memory of the Church then inspires thanksgiving and praise.” (CCC 1103)

Modernity often emphasizes gift-giving that does not entail being indebted to the giver. In fact, we seem to abhor the idea of owing something to someone else in general. In Leviticus,3 we read that God instructed the people to return or forgive all debts every fifty years, during what was called the Year of Jubilee. This was a safeguard against any particular family becoming trapped in poverty or servitude to another family within the community. Land and goods were to be returned to their original owners. In fact, God forbids the people to lend to the poor with interest (Ex 22:24). However, the negative view of being in debt mainly applies to material goods. If we look at Jewish worship at that time, we discover that there is a different kind of debt that is owed.

The people of Israel in the Exodus period and desert wanderings of Numbers have a debt that they owe collectively, and it is an existential one. While the concept of being ransomed from sin by a Savior was still developing in the history of Israel, the people did have a recent memory of being delivered from physical slavery in Egypt, and of being called forth as a special people set apart for God.4 Much like our own modern ability to recall certain cultural experiences or significant historical events that our families have lived through, the memory of deliverance was real, although sadly, sometimes forgotten. This memory should have reminded the people precisely why they should be faithful to the covenant that had been made between them and the Lord, who had indeed rescued them.

This is where the proper understanding of thanksgiving develops. God instructs Moses to say to Pharaoh, “Let my son go, that he may serve me.” (Ex 4:23) It is not only that the people are suffering physical hardship, but that they are in spiritual bondage as well. They are not free to worship with Lord as he has desired, and in fact, not only can they not offer sacrifice and praise5 in the ceremonial way that they will be instructed to, but they are also not able to worship God in their hearts because they are confused and distracted by the false gods of the Egyptians and their false worship. The well-known shema gives us the summary of what the people are commanded to do, and what is at the heart of the covenant that God has offered to them:

Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength. Take to heart these words which I command you today. Keep repeating them to your children. Recite them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them on your arm as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates. (Deut 6:5–9)

Throughout the Exodus account, even with the clear instructions of the Decalogue6 and the extensive instruction of Leviticus, the crux of what God asks for is a heart that worships him. A heart that is pure, that is free from sin and from the attachment to things of this world that would compete for priority in our lives, is a heart that can then give its full attention to the Lord and to what he identifies as worthy of praise. Yet we know that this was very difficult for the people, so much so that eventually the Lord himself promises that he will make this happen. “The LORD, your God, will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you will love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart and your whole being, in order that you may live.” (Deut 30:6)

As we know, this comes to full fruition in and through Christ, in the birth of the Church and the gift of the Sacramental life that we can participate in. By the outpouring of grace, first and primarily in Baptism, and onwards through the Holy Spirit and the worthy reception of the other sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist, we are able to be purified and to receive grace that leads us to true freedom. As we grow in greater freedom from our sins and in freedom from our attachments, we can offer the Lord an even greater worship with more of our heart, being and strength. It is not easy to give Him everything, and perhaps even more difficult to deny Him nothing. How often will we find ourselves burying some small treasure away for “later,” as a “just in case” policy, revealing that we still do not fully trust and believe in His goodness? How often do we realize that we have invited him into most of our life, but that there is still a certain area that is kept apart? He doesn’t really care about all of these minute details, does he?

If we have the courage to sit and think about this, and open our hearts to explore the state of things, we will realize that there is a very obvious answer: the Eucharist. If the Lord of the Universe cared enough about our whole heart and whole life that he was willing to become bread that we can dissolve in our mouths, then yes, we can safely assert that he cares about those minute details. Yes, he does in fact want our whole life. Yes, he wants our whole heart. All of it.

Even the ugly things. Sometimes we truly struggle to welcome or accept the Lord’s healing and transformative grace into our hearts and lives because we do not believe we are worthy of this mercy, or we do not believe that the Lord could really forgive us the great burden that we are carrying. We know that we are sinners and are aware of our failings and insufficiencies, and we feel that we cannot bring our whole selves into worship. There are things that are too dirty, too ugly, or too broken within us, things that are not appropriate for being before his throne. In fairness, this is a viewpoint that is clearly established in the Pentateuch, and again, the Levitical laws specify just how important it is for things and people to be purified and cleansed. Even the Lord said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.” (Matt 23:25–26) We can all understand what it is like to be aware that the inside of the cup is dirty. So how do we approach worship when we are indeed imperfect?

Jesus gives us the response. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Mt 11:28–30) You do not have to surrender on your own. Even the grace to surrender to the Father and return to him in contrition is a gift given to you freely. Jesus bears enough humility of Heart to cover us all in his mercy. He can gather us in and carry us to the Father, like the little children that we are. We just need to come to him in honesty.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs us, “The forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism is conferred by a particular sacrament called the sacrament of conversion, confession, penance, or reconciliation.” (CCC 1486) This is the primary means by which we are cleansed, particularly of mortal sin which incurs the loss of sanctifying grace. Venial sins are certainly forgiven by this Sacrament too, and these sins are also forgiven by true repentance during the celebration of the Eucharist: “Daily conversion and penance find their source and nourishment in the Eucharist, for in it is made present the sacrifice of Christ which has reconciled us with God. Through the Eucharist those who live from the life of Christ are fed and strengthened. ‘It is a remedy to free us from our daily faults and to preserve us from mortal sins.’” (CCC 1436)

Therefore, the Lord does not command what we cannot achieve, for he has given us the means by which we can be freed and purified. It is our duty, then, to faithfully, honestly, and humbly examine ourselves to identify and repent of what we have done wrong, and to seek forgiveness and healing from those faults. We must also remember that it is not only being forgiven that is important here, but the grace to become holy. The lack of sin does not necessarily mean the development of virtue. Once the soil has been tilled and the weeds pulled out, it is time for the planting of the good seeds. Do not clear the field but then fail to sow virtue where those weeds once grew.

There is nothing that the Lord cannot heal, nor is there any ugliness or sin that the Lord will not forgive and make whole when his children come to him for mercy. As a mother, I am often aware of instances when my children have done wrong. Sometimes, this is even before they acknowledge what they have done (which may take some prompting) and are sorry for what they have done (which also may require a gentle but honest rebuke). Yet, even before they have apologized, I yearn for them to be reconciled with me or whomever is affected by their action, and with the Lord. They do not need to beg for forgiveness — I have already forgiven them in my heart. I know that they are children and that they have not developed the skills necessary to make just judgments and to control their impulses. I am aware of how their hunger or their exhaustion affects their mood and their tempers. Instead, I take on the blame often in my heart, for I know it is my duty as their mother to instruct them and to care for them. I recognize how I have not set the example for them that they should follow, or how I have not placed their needs ahead of my own so that they can indeed develop virtue as they ought. It is a learning experience for all of us. Yet this awareness reminds me of how much our Father in heaven waits to forgive us! If I, in all of my own weakness and sinfulness, still yearn to forgive my children, how much more does the one who gave us all life yearn to draw us close to him and embrace us with his mercy? Truly, for the Lord said, “How many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings.” (Matt 23:37)

This is the exodus memory that we need to now bear in mind as a Church. “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.” (Deut 30:19) He has delivered us from death, the death that ends with our souls being eternally separated from him. He has given us the path to life, the life that means fulfillment not only now but ultimately in the life to come. What kind of sacrifice of praise will we offer to the Lord? The sacrifice is to be of our heart, and the praise is to come with our whole lives. The thanksgiving that we offer is to be one of remembering, one of recalling the one who has given the gift, and what the gift itself is. As the Psalmist reminds us, “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works! My very self you know.” (Psalm 139:13–14) He has given us an earthly life that we may one day share in the eternal life. The means to overcome death itself comes to us in the humble Body and Blood of his Son.7

When you are next able to celebrate the sacred mysteries at the Supper of the Lord, take time to remember.8 Recall your life. Recall the lives of your parents and grandparents. Look back on the history of mankind that has led to this moment where you are able to be present for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Recall all that the Lord has ransomed you from. Remember your weaknesses, and repent of them. Then, remember the triumphs that the Lord has wrought in your life, and invite him to continue to achieve victory over sin and death in your heart. Thank him! Praise him! Rejoice, because you are wonderfully made, and then you are remade by your Baptism into the life and death of Christ, and are reborn as an adopted child of God.9 This is what we are called to give thanks for. This is the honor and worship that we are called forth from slavery into freedom to offer. This is why thanksgiving is worship, and worship must be thanksgiving.

Lord, may our participation in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and in the reception of your precious Body and Blood of the Eucharist, be our salvation. May our hearts rejoice and sing praise to you, reveling in the mystery of being united to you in this intimate way. May we prepare with true reverence to receive you. Come, and with the shining light of your glory, burn away all that is within us that is not of you, that we will offer you a holy and pure thanksgiving. May the zeal of the Holy Spirit, the “consuming fire,”10 be the fragrant offering that continues to rise up into the heavens from within the temples of our souls.

  1. Cf. CCC 1328.
  2. A 1965 American musical drama film produced and directed by Robert Wise.
  3. Cf. Lev 25:23–28.
  4. Cf. Exodus 6:6–8 and Deuteronomy 1:30–31.
  5. Dr. John Bergsma and Dr. Brant Pitre offer an excellent discussion of this topic in their book A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament, Ignatius Press, 2018.
  6. Exodus 20:1–17.
  7. Cf. Mt 26:26–30; Lk 22:14–20.
  8. Cf. 1 Cor. 11:23–26.
  9. Cf. CCC 1265.
  10. Heb 12:29.
Alissa Thorell About Alissa Thorell

Alissa Thorell holds an MTS in Theology, Biotechnology, and Ethics from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies. She also holds a BA in Theology and Catechetics from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Besides teaching for Catholic Distance University, Professor Thorell is also a curriculum reviewer for the Subcommittee on the Catechism at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.