Gratitude and the Incarnation
First Sunday of Advent, Cycle B

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

The gospel today exhorts us to stay awake and keep watch at the gate. But what are we to be watching for? The answer, of course, is that we are to be watching for the arrival of the Bridegroom. In order to watch, we cannot sleep, but must stay awake. Consider the posture of one who sleeps. He or she lies horizontal, like a corpse. Sleep resembles death, and so it is symbolic of spiritual death, the death that results from “killing” the grace of God within the soul. If the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night and we are asleep, that is, dead to the grace of God, we will be among the reprobate. That is precisely what the gospel readings of the previous few weeks have very clearly pointed out.

For those who are caught sleeping, the King’s return will not be received as joyful news; his return will mark the end of our world, and those who are dead to the grace of God live only for the temporary and transitory goods of this world. That is why his return will be experienced, by some, as dreadful, for it implies the loss of everything they’ve lived for. If we’ve lived only for this world and have not used every minute of this life to grow in the love of this Bridegroom, then we will not know him when he comes; he will be a stranger to us, not a familiar friend. But Christ commands us to keep watch at the gate. To watch is to look outward, away from oneself and one’s property. But it is very difficult to do so. We all have a propensity to look in the direction of the self. Original Sin has left a real wound in our nature, and this wound inclines us to focus on the self. It’s like having to function with a throbbing toothache: all we can think of is the ache in our jaw. That’s what our lives are like. We carry the wounds of Original Sin and the result is our gaze is habitually turned in towards the self, its pain, and all that our lives lack. The difficult challenge is to learn to look outward, away from the self.

I drove to Ottawa recently to visit a couple of friends, and on the way there I tuned in to a Christian radio station coming out of Belleville. It is very uplifting to listen to radio and have your faith affirmed, not to mention the uplifting music with clean lyrics. Well, at one point there was an interview with a quadriplegic, and although she exuded a spirit of joy, she spoke of how miserable she once was.

What happened to change that was a friend of hers, a very devout Christian, said: “St. Paul tells us to give thanks to God for all things”. She was suggesting that this woman, a quadriplegic, thank God for everything in her life. This woman was furious at the suggestion: “You want me to thank God for this life that I have”. Her friend, however, insisted that it does not mean you have to “feel” thankful, just “be” thankful by giving thanks. Well, she thought about it, and she actually began to attempt it. Indeed, she didn’t feel thankful, but she started to give thanks to God anyways.

She said that only gradually, after about a month, did she begin to “feel” thankful, and her misery turned to joy. What started to happen was that she’d begin to see things that she could be thankful for, and her list got longer and longer. She’d thank God for the nurse, for the hospital bed, that she got a hospital bed by the window so that she could see outside, etc., and this continued, and soon she’d notice tremendous gifts she previously took for granted. It was not long before she was spending most of her time thanking God. Her eyes were gradually turned away from herself. And that’s why her life became so joyful. The word “ecstasy” comes from the Greek word ekstasis, which means to “stand outside of”, or to be beside oneself. The more we look outside ourselves in a spirit of thanksgiving, the more joy filled or ecstatic our life becomes.

Learning this gratitude is so important, because Christ’s coming in the flesh was ultimately for the sake of restoring gratitude to God. Ingratitude for the blessings that God pours out upon us every minute of every day is grievously sinful. Man takes from God and gives nothing back, refusing to acknowledge the debt. But religion is an act of gratitude; for it is an act of thanksgiving. Our culture is profoundly irreligious because it is profoundly ungrateful.

The Second Person of the Trinity joined a human nature in order to offer the Father a sacrifice of thanksgiving to compensate for man’s sinful ingratitude, so that when the Father looks upon humankind, He will see in the midst of that ingratitude the perfect and infinite act of gratitude of His Son, and the perfect gratitude of one creature in particular, namely his mother, our Lady. In this way, the sight of mankind will not be a source of disappointment, but a source of delight.

The word Eucharist is from the Greek eukharistia, which means thanksgiving. The Eucharist is the sacrifice of the cross, it is Christ’s perfect offering of thanks to the Father, given to us under the appearance of ordinary bread. We unite ourselves to his gratitude when we consume his body and blood in the Eucharist.

Now it’s possible to receive the Eucharist without proper gratitude. In fact, I remember a priest friend of mine from the U.S telling me: “I’m beginning to realize that I just don’t appreciate the Eucharist enough, that my appreciation for it always falls short of what it should be”. I was struck by this remark because this was a joyful priest who loves priesthood, that is, loves saying Mass.

But we really don’t quite understand what we’re receiving: Christ himself, body, blood, soul and divinity, under the appearance of bread. It is no longer the substance of bread; it only looks like bread, feels like bread, tastes like bread, but it’s the substance of Christ the King, not merely a symbol, but the real physical presence of that King. But more than those words indicate, the Eucharist is Christ in the act of offering himself to the Father in a perfect and infinite act of gratitude. The more we realize what this means, the more we will hunger for the Eucharist, and then the more we’ll seek to join ourselves to this eternal offering. And when the Father beholds us, so to speak, He will see the gratitude of his Son.

To turn away from that to pursue the goods of this world, to live for this world, is to live for that which will eventually pass away. It is to live for death, to sleep, to die. That is why there is so much unhappiness in this world; a great number of people are spiritually dead. They are far too focused on their own woes, their own hurts, what they lack, etc., and the gifts and blessings they receive every day pass them by. Every day we wake up is a gift, and every time we get into the car and make it to our destination without getting crushed by a truck or hit by another car, is a gift. We have no idea of what our own guardian angel accomplishes for us every day, the tragedies we’ve been protected from, but they protect us continually and are always defending us from the accusations of the Evil One, like a good defence lawyer before a determined and relentless prosecutor accusing us of all the sins that he’s lured us into. Without their constant watchfulness and protection, we’d be lost. They are like an older sibling watching over the younger one in the midst of a dangerous city.

We live in a country where we can worship freely, in a Church as beautiful as this. We have the opportunity to be cleansed from sin and filled with divine grace, we can receive God in the flesh in holy communion, and we have so many lesser blessings, like free medical care, free Catholic schooling, beautiful weather, employment, and the health to be able to work, and even our illnesses are blessings. When I think of the lives some of them were leading before they became ill, I can’t help think they would have been lost souls had they not become ill. Some would never have cried out to God in the dark without their mental illness.

I often tell my students that when I look back at my own life, I see that my greatest disappointments have turned out to be my greatest blessings. So even in the midst of suffering, we have to thank God, because if He allows suffering into our lives, He allows it because He wills our greatest good and that suffering will help achieve it—otherwise He would have prevented it. So we ought to thank Him for all of it. When that happens, we learn to fly, to rise above all our difficulties and life becomes exhilarating, like it would be if we could fly like birds.