Later this week many in the United States will be celebrating Thanksgiving. Many will gather around a table and enjoy all manner of seasonal and traditional food. Prayers and conversation will be shared along with shouts at the TV during broadcast sporting events. However, for many none of those things will apply. Many people will not have a house to go to or a family that would welcome them. Many will spend the day on the street lonely or alone. Some may attend public meals offered for little or no cost but they will remain nameless and unknown to those dishing out the food. Some may have a home and family but hardly have the finances to put out the feast that we traditionally picture (thanks Mr. Rockwell.) Instead, many may experience something similar to today’s featured artwork, The Thankful Poor, by Henry Ossawa Tanner. This got me thinking about the very different reality of Thanksgiving for a lot of people in light of our traditional expectations.
What happens when what’s on our table does not meet our expectations?
What happens when what’s on our neighbor’s table does not meet our expectations?
Can we be thankful? Can we show gratitude regardless of what’s on the table, who we are with or the circumstances of our neighbors?
There’s a nasty assumption that a full table is somehow blessed and a lean table is not. In thinking about this in light of our cultural expectations, blessings and gratitude my mind drifted to Jesus expectation-upending statements in the Sermon on the Mount. Especially the opening lines we refer to as the Beatitudes. Each line famously begins with “Blessed” or “Happy” depending on how your translation renders the Greek word μακάριος. I wondered how would our reading of it change if we read the first word as “Thankful”. We are typically thankful for our blessings so, could we be thankful in those circumstances that Jesus was pronouncing as blessed?
What would gratitude in those situations look like?
Thankful are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Thankful are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Thankful are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Thankful are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Thankful are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Thankful are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Thankful are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Thankful are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
How transformative would our faith actually be for us and our neighbors if we could be thankful in these ways?
This is world-changing (un)gratitude.
I call it (un)gratitude because it does not depend on table-filling blessing, but an unexpected and subversive gratitude that exists in spite of our cultural/economic expectations. The people and situations Jesus calls “blessed” in these verses are not typically those the world would consider blessed. Thus, they would not be expected to give much thanks in those situations.
However, if we ARE blessed in those situations, then we CAN offer thanksgiving and gratitude. It is quite subversive when we are gracious in spite of the seeming absence of blessing (i.e. as in today’s featured artwork). Through this (un)gratitude, difference in “blessing” should no longer serve to separate a full table from an empty table. Our thankfulness should not come from the fullness of our personal table, but through God’s provision for the World around the communal table established by Christ and served by the Church.
We are blessed when we have a table to sit at that welcomes the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, the meek and the merciful.
We are blessed when we come to the table with open arms to both share and receive blessings in peace.
We are blessed when we come to the table hungry for righteousness and not for a full belly.
For those blessings, we can always give thanks.
I am participating in the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from #Unco14, focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The theme for November is (Un)Gratitude. To read more reflections, check out UncoSynchro.