Thanks. Thank you. Thank God! Thank heavens. Thank you, Jesus.
These are phrases that I’m sure each of us has used many, many times. Lots of times, it is in occasions that were right in front of us. When we’ve been given a birthday or graduation or really any type of gift, we say, “thanks,” or you send a thank-you note. When we see something incredible and awe-inspiring in nature, like looking at the leaves turning of the trees on the side of the mountains, or a clear blue sky, or a nice 85 degree day in mid-October, we say, “Thank you, Lord.” Sometimes when we experience feelings of great joy such as at the wedding of a family member or friend, we say “Thank you, God.” I know I said “thank you” quite a bit the other night – first to Carlos Beltran when he hit that ball into the corner to win the game, and then “Thank God, I can go to bed.” All these are occasions of us saying thank-you to someone, whether we mean it or not. But what about those things that we don’t notice, or the miracles of God in our own lives?
In today’s readings, we have a theme of thanksgiving. The characters in our readings, Naaman the great Syrian General, or the men exiled in the Gospel, suffer from leprosy, they go to seek God’s help, and they are cured of their illness. Now to all of us, we would say, of course they should be thankful! But this story isn’t just about physical healing, but it’s about us and our spiritual healing as well. You see, each of us suffers like the lepers in the Gospel, but ours is more of a spiritual leprosy most of the time.
Leprosy, as most of us know, is a terrible and deadly disease, that is still incurable, even today. It causes the extremities of our body (the hands, feet, ears, nose) to slowly disintigrate. It is a horrible, disfiguring disease with prolonged agony throughout. It takes those things about us which are beautiful, and slowly rots them away. And as a result, this disease can be isolating, not just because it is incredibly contagious, but because it is horrifying to others. In the same way, we can suffer from the spiritual leprosy of sin, whether it be selfishness, sins of omission, or addictions to sinful habits. And this disease takes those things which are beautiful about us (our generosity, our love for others) and slowly and painfully disintegrates them. It transforms us from who we were made by God to be into an ugly, disfigured, and agonizing version of ourselves. We become turned in on ourselves, selfish, and isolated from others because of our attachment to these sins. And as a result, we lose that virtue of charity that has been placed in our hearts by God, and we can’t love ourselves, other people, or God as well.
To be healed of this terrible condition of sin, we need to turn to someone who can help us, cleanse us. We don’t look for a filler of that condition, something to make us feel better, like money, more sinful habits, possessions, but instead we seek a real cure. The only way that we can be cleansed of our sin, the only cure for it, is in our relationship with God. We have to turn back to God and ask for his gift of healing. Often times, God uses the more ordinary things to heal us, things we wont expect. For the lepers in the readings, it was washing in the waters of a river, or going to see the priests. And the characters in the readings see this as well, and are confused, because they think they know better. Why would these things do anything? Naaman got pretty frustrated because he had come all the way to Israel to be told to wash in a river. And the lepers in the Gospel had likely spent several years in the leper colonies outside of the city, only to be told to go to the Temple in the middle of the city? These things seem so ordinary, too ordinary, to be able to do much. For us, the cures are simple things like sitting down and speaking to a priest of our sins, or eating what appear to be bread and wine. But in reality, the Lord takes these things, as he took the river or the trip to see the priests, and transforms them into something that can bring our health back to us. In the meeting of those two simple people in the Sacrament of Confession, God is present and gives the power to the priest to forgive sins. The bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ! All these things can heal and cleanse us more than anything else in the world can.
So how do we respond to this gift? We have to respond in thanks! Now we might ask why Jesus would want us to thank him. Is he that needy? Is he going to feel bad if we don’t? Of course not. But he knows how good it is for us. Being thankful to God stirs in us a spirit of gratitude that we can carry with us all the time. And that spirit of gratitude recognizes something that the Gospels keep repeating over and over, and that our stewardship appeal repeats over and over – that everything we have is a gift from God. And again, when people give us gifts, we should thank them.
Part of giving thanks to God is worship. In the first reading, Naaman asked for two huge mounds of dirt to take with him so that he could continue to worship the God of Israel on Israel’s own soil, even as he returned home. And the leper in the Gospel returned praising God and thanking him with shouts of joy. We do the same here at this holy Mass. Its interesting to know that the Mass is the means by which we are healed of our sins and sustained, but at the same time, it is our means of giving thanks and praise to God. That’s why we sing, why we wear colorful vestments, why we keep saying “thanks be to God” after the readings. All of this, all of these external signs, are part of our human effort to give total glory to God.
Do we ever give thanks to God for what he has done for us? Do we ever reflect on those things that we’ve received from God, and if so, do we ever give thanks for them, directly to God? One practical way that we can do this, and an easy way, is the act of thanksgiving after Mass. When family and guests used to come to the seminary, they always get very uncomfortable after Mass because none of the seminarian leave right away! But why not make a commitment, and I’ll do it with you, of taking one or two minutes after Mass to kneel or sit down and pause quietly to give thanks to God for the gifts he’s given us in the Eucharist, and for all he has done in your life. I know it can be distracting or difficult to do. For me, sometimes I get caught up greeting people after Mass or setting up for the next Mass that I forget to take a moment in thanks. But its only one or two minutes of thanks that we can use to express to God how grateful we are. And so as we come before the Eucharist today, what is the spiritual leprosy that we carry with us that isolates us, that disease that we need to bring to the Lord? What things has God done in your life that you should thank God for? May we be people with grateful and thankful hearts, and after receiving the Lord’s sacred body and blood, let us go forth praising and thanking God for all that he has done for us. Amen.