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Grace and Gratitude

Grace and Gratitude

It is often said that Thanksgiving Day is the favorite holiday of most Americans.  It is a holiday that comes without a lot of demands such as gift-giving.  It is a time to be with family perhaps on a golden autumn day.  Moreover, there is a spiritual quality to Thanksgiving Day which speaks to most people.  Most of us experience a healing and peace when we take time to acknowledge all of the gifts of life we have received and to express thanks for them.  Even people who do not think that they believe in God feel the need to offer their thanks to something beyond themselves.

On Thanksgiving Day, we give thanks for many blessings.  I am reminded of the list of our needs that Martin Luther made as the meaning of the term "daily bread" in the Lord's Prayer.  This famous list in Luther's Shorter Catechism includes "drink, food, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, cattle, money, property, pious husband or wife, pious children, pious servants, pious and faithful rulers, good government, good seasons, peace, health, education, honor, good friends, trusty neighbors, and the like!"

The Thanksgiving Day holiday is a natural expression of the Judeo-Christian heritage of American culture.  When Christianity entered the Western world, it introduced new virtues, and one of them was gratitude or thanksgiving.  Indeed, the distinctive form of Christian worship is the Eucharist, which means "thanksgiving."  Whatever else the Christian life involves as a personal response to the living God, it always involves gratitude because the God we worship is a God of grace.

No theologian of the 20th had a stronger emphasis on gratitude than the Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth.  Often he waxes eloquently on the subject of grace and gratitude, as he did in his discussion of the covenant God has established with us and all of creation through the reconciling death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God's Son incarnate with us.

[Another] thing which we maintain when we describe the covenant as the covenant of grace is that the covenant engages man as the partner of God only, but actually and necessarily, to gratitude.  On the side of God it is only a matter of free grace and this in the form of benefit.  For the other partner in the covenant to whom God turns in this grace, the only proper thing, but the thing which is unconditionally and inescapably demanded, is that he should be thankful.  How can anything more or different be asked of man?  The only answer to charis is eucharistia.  But how can it be doubted for a moment that this is in fact asked of him?  Charis always demands the answer of eucharistia.  Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth.  Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo.  Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.  Not by virtue of any necessity of the concepts as such.  But we are speaking of the grace of the God who is God for man, and of the gratitude of man as his response to this grace.  Here, at any rate, the two belong together, so that only gratitude can correspond to grace, and this correspondence cannot fail.  Its failure, ingratitude, is sin, transgression.  Radically and basically all sin is simply ingratitude--man's refusal of the one but necessary thing which is proper to and is required of him with whom God has graciously entered into covenant.  As far as man is concerned there can be no question of anything but gratitude; but gratitude is the complement which man must necessarily fulfill.  (Church Dogmatics, IV.1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, G. W. Bromily, tr., T&T Clark, 1956, Pp. 41-42).

The practice of gratitude produces in us a certain cheerfulness.  There is too much sneering by liberal Christians and too much snarling by conservative Christians.  All of us can be glum in our deeply felt convictions.  Yet the grateful awareness that we are of grace and sustained by grace should suffuse our days with a steady joy and cheerfulness.

I think it is odd, but I am glad that our secular government sets aside a special day every year for thanksgiving.  Of all people, we who are Christians should use this day as a reminder to ourselves that every day is a day of thanksgiving for those of us who acknowledge the grace of our God in Jesus Christ our Lord.