Holy Thursday: The Power of Gratitude, Our Life Line for Navigating the Paschal Mystery of Birth, Life, Death and Resurrection

2015 Holy Thursday Homily

In Jewish tradition, at the beginning of the Passover meal, the youngest person asks the question, “What makes this night different from all other nights?”  Jesus celebrated the Passover feast every year of his life.  What makes this particular night that we just heard about, different for him?  What made this particular night different is that it was his last. He knew that we was going to die very soon.

If you knew that you were going to die tomorrow, how would you spend your last night?  I read an article that pondered that question and the author concluded that truly joyful people, people with a deep spirituality, would spend their last night doing what they did every night. They wouldn't need to change anything--nothing would be left undone or unsaid.

What Jesus does his last night is consistent with how he lived his life up to that night.  He knew he was on mission from the Trinity to share God’s love and that this mission needed to be handed on.  So on the night before he died, he gathered his community.  He showed them what the mission was about and how to do it by washing their feet.  And he fed them.   He fed them with his very self and promised them that when they did this in memory of him, he would continue to be present and feed them.

Like most of us, I’ve know the story of how Jesus spent his last night since I was young child.  But there is something about this night, this year, that is different for me.  While I was aware of WHAT Jesus did, I never paid much attention to HOW Jesus did these things.  In the Gospel accounts of that last night it is clear that Jesus gave thanks.   He did what he did, with a grateful heart; a deep sense of gratitude in the face of betrayal, denial, failure, torture and death.

It's easy to be grateful when things are going well: when you win the lottery, get a new job, get married or have a child.   But how is it possible to be grateful when bad things happen; when you're faced with frustration, failure, loss of job, betrayal, divorce, sickness and even death?

Around Christmas time we found out that my wife has cancer. An event that turned our world upside down.  My reaction was not gratitude.  In fact it was more like the other characters in the story in the way that they dealt with a very bad situation:  being paralyzed by fear, wanting to numb the pain with wine and just sleep, the urge to run away, to lash out in anger, wanting to accuse and blame others even God.  My reaction was not one of gratitude.

But something else also happened to me around Christmas time. I'm friends with two families in which each of them had a family member die on Christmas Day.  No one is supposed to die on Christmas Day. In talking with the families about how painful and difficult that was, I was struck by what they shared about their experience of losing a loved one on Christmas.  

Both families expressed that while it was excruciatingly painful, it was also in some ways a beautiful time in which they strongly they experienced God’s presence and love especially as they gathered as family.  The deaths helped them not only put the true meaning of Christmas in perspective,  but helped them appreciate life in general. One person shared that the gift that she had received from this was an awareness of how precious every moment of life is and how grateful she had become for things that she wasn’t even aware of before.  It gave me hope that she was able to experience gratitude in the midst of grief.

Over the past several months, my wife Kelly and I have had more than our fair share of bad news regarding her cancer.  But I’ve been amazed by her overall positive attitude and how she’s come to grow and appreciate the importance of gratitude, particularly when things aren't going so well.  I’m learning so much from her.  This morning she was telling me how important it was for her at this point to be grateful, especially for the small things, like a friend who brought over dinner this week on chemo day or a kind word about how she looks wearing a scarf since she lost her hair.  She said, “ I just don’t know how you get through something like this if you’re not grateful.  It’s all about the silver linings.  There is so much to be thankful for...and its coming from people and situations I never imaged or expected.  It’s overwhelming.”

Gratitude is the life line.  It keeps us grounded in the reality of God’s love.  It is the roadmap for discovering how God’s love  plays out through the process we call the paschal mystery:  that cycle of birth, life, death and new life.  It  reminds us that all is gift;  that nothing is permanent, other than God’s love, which he keeps giving us at every stage and step of the journey, in good times and bad and all the times in between.  It is humbling and exalting.

I think it was Jesus’ profound sense of gratitude that night that got him through the horrible things that would happen next.  It grounded him in the reality that no matter how bad it would get, God’s love would be there.  And, that was enough for him.

The Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart said that if the only prayer we ever offered was a prayer of thanksgiving, it would be enough.  It is hard to be grateful when things go bad and we are tempted to respond like the disciples did in the story; to let fear paralyze us, to let anger consume us, to let despair destroy us.  

But their story  gives me great hope in the power of being grateful in the face of bad things, even if gratitude isn’t your first response.  Even though the disciples acted badly and ran and scattered, eventually they came back together as a community.  And when they did, they remembered not only what Jesus did that night, but that he did it with a grateful heart, first giving thanks.   

The Greek word for thanksgiving is Eucharist.  And so, as we gather tonight on the eve of these most sacred days of remembering the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we do it as a grateful community, a Eucharistic community.   We remember how Jesus gave thanks, and we try do the same.  That’s what makes tonight different, and hopefully makes every day different for us.  

Homily given at St. John the Baptist, San Lorenzo. Holy Thursday 2015

Matt Dulka is a Mission Promoter and deacon for the Diocese of Oakland.