Summary: Thanksgiving is a good time to reflect on how the Church can simplify its approach so that the Gospel rings true to the modern ear.
Thanksgiving Day 2014
The Joy of the Gospel
The reading from Jesus ben Sira, or Sirach, sums up what we should be doing today, and every day, “bless the God of all, who in every way does great things; who exalts our days from birth, and deals with us according to his mercy.” These words are reflected in the Lutheran pastor Martin Rinkart’s hymn, Nun Danket alle Gott, which we know as “Now Thank We All our God.” There’s irony here, because Lutherans reject the inspiration of Sirach. Whatever the situation, we need to be grateful to God for everything, even our troubles. It was Jesus, our Lord, who prayed a psalm of praise, Psalm 22, shortly after he prayed “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me.” Grief and praise do go together. God has either shown us his goodness and love, or He is fixing to do so.
Are we not all like the Samaritan leper? Hasn’t Jesus poured out His forgiveness and healing on us and our families? Shouldn’t our attitude always be gratitude? If God’s whole focus is on doing good for us, why would we not always be on the verge of singing “Now Thank We All our God”?
The Holy Father tells us in his letter that we should value the unchanging nature of God’s ways with us, but always be open to understanding that there are many ways to treasure it. ‘Let us never forget that “the expression of truth can take different forms. The renewal of these forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning”.
‘All of this has great relevance for the preaching of the Gospel, if we are really concerned to make its beauty more clearly recognized and accepted by all. Of course, we will never be able to make the Church’s teachings easily understood or readily appreciated by everyone. Faith always remains something of a cross; it retains a certain obscurity which does not detract from the firmness of its assent. Some things are understood and appreciated only from the standpoint of this assent, which is a sister to love, beyond the range of clear reasons and arguments. We need to remember that all religious teaching ultimately has to be reflected in the teacher’s way of life, which awakens the assent of the heart by its nearness, love and witness.
‘In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them. At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives. Saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God “are very few.” Citing Saint Augustine, he noted that the precepts subsequently enjoined by the Church should be insisted upon with moderation “so as not to burden the lives of the faithful” and make our religion a form of servitude, whereas “God’s mercy has willed that we should be free.” This warning, issued many centuries ago, is most timely today. It ought to be one of the criteria to be taken into account in considering a reform of the Church and her preaching which would enable it to reach everyone.’
I think, for instance, of the five years I served several bishops as deacon master of ceremonies. In my studies, I found that, before the latest revisions of the liturgical books, the master of ceremonies had probably ten times the number of things to remember. There were even specific instructions on how to put the bishop’s shoes on his feet. I’m not a detail person, so I’m sure I would have made a perfect botch of that! So the streamlining of liturgy, which in some places went too far, is an example of “rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives.” Our focus must always be on spreading to others the joy of the Gospel.
Just a simple example: my wife recently was having some medical tests, and found that the person serving her was named “Monica.” She asked if she knew anything about her patron, and the young woman did not. So Carolyn had the privilege of telling her the story of Augustine and his sainted mother. Such a simple act, but who knows what the ultimate result might be, with God’s grace behind it all?