Approaching God in Thanksgiving
December 14, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Third Sunday of Advent
Reading I (Zephaniah 3:14-18a) Reading II (Philippians 4:4-7)
Gospel (St. Luke 3:10-18)
In the second reading, we heard Saint Paul tell the Philippians that they are to rejoice always, and he even repeats it: “I say again, rejoice! The Lord is near.” It is that presence of the Lord that is cause for rejoicing. Now we can look at that in several different ways. As we have now made it three-fourths of the way through the season of Advent, the Church dons its rose-colored vestments today, a sign of hope, a sign of joy as we draw near towards Christmas that the time of penance is drawing near to a close. It gives us hope and encouragement as we continue to hasten on our way because the coming of Our Lord at Christmas, the celebration of His first coming among us, is near at hand and there is great cause for rejoicing for us. At the same time, Saint Paul was looking forward, looking at the Second Coming, and telling us that the Lord was near in that sense and that we needed to rejoice because the day of the Lord was near at hand.
But there is another way of looking at it as well, that is, the way we would understand it from the first reading, as the Church places that before us from the Book of the Prophet Zephaniah. The Lord, speaking to Jerusalem, tells Jerusalem that it is to rejoice, that it is to exalt because the Holy One of Israel is in her midst. In that way, the Lord is near. He is near to us in a variety of ways. He is present to us, for instance, in His indwelling, for anyone who is in the state of grace. He is among us in the Blessed Sacrament so that we can come to Him anytime of the day or night to be able to pray and to be able to pour our hearts out to Him, to know that He is right there, that He has not abandoned us but that He is with us. Again, great cause for rejoicing.
If you just think about it practically, for instance, to be able to look back more than 2,000 years ago, the people of Israel had the true faith; it was revealed by God. They believed in God, but they did not have the Lord right there in their midst; they did not have the Blessed Sacrament. They knew that God was in heaven. They knew that, of course, even the highest heavens could not contain God and He was present even in the world by His immensity, as it is called; that is, He holds all things in existence and He is present among us in that way. But they did not have a full understanding of the Indwelling Presence, and they did not have anything that was even close to the Blessed Sacrament. They believed that God was present in the temple on the propitiatory. But even that, after the time of the prophet Jeremiah, was not even there because the mercy seat was on the ark of the covenant, and the ark of the covenant had not been seen since near the year 600 B.C. when Jeremiah put it in a cave on Mount Nebo and filled its mouth with rocks so that it will not be found until right near the end of the world when all of the children of Israel are gathered together once again, as we are told in 1 Maccabees. And so the people of Israel, at the time of Jesus, did not recognize that close presence of God. They knew that He had given them the commandments, they knew that He was their God, but they did not have that concept of the closeness of God with us.
Imagine if we had to go through our lives day after day, knowing that, of course, the Lord is real, that He is in heaven, that we can pray to Him, but that He seems to be a long ways’ away from us. In His mercy, He has not done that for us. In His mercy, He has given Himself to us in such an intimate way that He remains with us in the fullness of His Person in the Blessed Sacrament.
Saint Paul, then, as he was looking at all of these various things, tells us that we should have no anxiety. Now if you look at life in America, there are not a whole lot of people who would be able to say that they live a worry-free life. If we took a poll and asked everybody here today, how many people could raise their hand and say, “I have no anxiety in my heart about anything”? My suspicion is that probably none of us would be able to raise our hand. If that is the case then we have to ask why. Saint Paul says, “Have no anxiety about anything; but rather pray to God in petitions and prayers, and with thanksgiving make your needs known.” And then he said, “The peace of God, which is beyond all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in the knowledge and the love of Jesus Christ.” He gives us the formula for being able to live a worry-free life: It is to make known all of our needs to God in prayers and petitions and with thanksgiving.
That is the real key that most of us are missing. Many of us do not even make our needs known to God. We just try to do it ourselves, which, of course, is going to lead to nothing but anxiety because if none of us has figured out by now that we are not in control and that the more we try to control things the worse they get – it is a one-to-one correlation; the more we try to control it, the more anxious we are going to be because we are trying to play god – that is reason number one why the anxiety is there: because we are not making our needs known to God. Number two is that we do not trust Him. It is just a plain and simple fact and reality – we do not trust God. So even if we make our prayers and petitions known to Him, we do not really believe that He is going to do anything about it, or we do not believe that He has our best interest in mind, or we do not believe that He hears us, or that He cares, or whatever it may be. We throw the prayer and petitions out more almost as a way of appeasing our own conscience to be able to say, “Well, I did something that was similar to prayer anyway. But because I really don’t trust God and I’m not sure how much I really believe in Him, therefore, I’ve got to do it myself anyway!” That is not the right attitude to have as we go to prayer.
First, we have to have faith, and then we have to have trust. And then Saint Paul says, “…with thanksgiving.” Now that is something that is sorely lacking in the prayer life of most people. Remember that prayer can have four different ends. There is adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication (or petition). Most of us are pretty good at supplication. “This is what I want, Lord. Give me.” We are pretty good at those. Some of us do okay with the contrition. We go to confession, we recognize our sinfulness, and we are sorry for what we have done. Very few are very good at adoration, really adoring God for Who He is. And even fewer really practice thanksgiving, to give thanks to God for all things and in all things. Even when we come before Him to ask Him for something, when we finally get to that point it is usually because we are pushed beyond the point where we realize that we can no longer do it ourselves – or we cannot even think we can! – and then we usually come to God either in a frenzy or in anger. And we sometimes, in our arrogance, yell at God. We chew Him out for what He is doing or what He has allowed to happen or whatever it might be. The farthest thing from our mind is to say “thank you”. Even more tragic is that when God answers our prayers (even though we did not really believe or expect that He would) then we still do not even come back to say “thank you”. We are like the nine lepers who were healed by Our Lord (and only the one who was a foreigner came back to say “thank you”) because most of us just take it all for granted. We do not even take the time to say “thank you” to God for what He has done for us.
Even if we just look at our day-to-day lives, there are thousands of things everyday that we should say “thank you” to God for. But remember that we need to thank God even for putting us in the situation that we have become so desperate that we have actually gotten down on our knees and asked God for something in prayer. That should be the greatest act of gratitude – that we actually prayed! – because some of us probably would not have if the situation had not gotten so desperate. And if prayer is a regular thing, which it should be in everybody’s life, then we need to thank God for the grace to even have the desire to pray in the first place and thank Him for the grace to get to prayer. Our lives should be ones of thanksgiving.
Just think of Our Lord. As He was sitting at the Last Supper, knowing that the hour of His death was at hand, knowing that He was going to suffer more than any of us could ever even begin to imagine, He gave thanks to God. And in the midst of all the ingratitude of humanity over the centuries, He continues to give thanks to His Father and is present among us in the thanksgiving sacrifice of the Eucharist. That is what the word “Eucharist” means: thanksgiving. Think of the ingratitude. Think of the sacrileges. Think of the desecrations that happen very regularly. All the sins against the Blessed Sacrament, and Jesus continues to look at His Father and say “thank you”. He is so grateful that anyone would receive Him with a heart filled with love, that anyone would come before Him to pray, that anyone would adore Him in the Eucharist, that He is willing to endure all of the violations even to be present for that one person who is going to love Him as He deserves to be loved. For that one He says “thank you”. And the thanks are multiplied many times over as many more people come to Him.
If that is the way Jesus is with us, how ought we to be? He is our Teacher; He is the Master; He is the One Who shows us the example and teaches us what we are to do. When we look at the violations against Our Lord in the Eucharist and then we look at our own lives, we really need to ask ourselves, “Is there anything in my life that even remotely compares to a desecration of the Eucharist?” Jesus says “thank you”; should we not then do the same? It is when we can see everything as coming from the hand of God, and when we can see that everything in our life is ultimately a gift no matter how bad it might seem, that when we go before the Lord we can say “thank you”. And when we can say “thank you”, when we have the charity to thank God, when we have the hope to trust in God, when we have the faith to believe in God, then we will have no anxiety at all and the peace of Christ will reign in our hearts and we will be kept in the knowledge and the love of God and of His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. That is the promise of Saint Paul.
So as we look at all the anxiety in our lives, we need to simply ask, “Why? Do I have faith? Do I have hope? Do I have charity? Do I believe in God? Do I trust Him? Do I thank Him?” because in one, two, or all three of those things you will find the reason for all the worry and all the anxiety in life. If you can put those three things into practice, you will find the cure to all of the anxiety and you will know that the Lord is present in your midst.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.