Every week at the Monday mass in the basilica during the Eucharist liturgy, the priest says, “It is indeed right and just, our duty and our salvation always and everywhere to give you thanks, God, our Father Almighty.” To the “I love Jesus but hate religion” crowd, this phrase is doubly scandalous. So you’re trying to save yourself with something that you do as a duty? Isn’t that the definition of works-righteousness? I’m sure the Roman Catholic Church has an official answer to this. I wanted to share what I have meditated upon as I’ve thought about it on this holiday in which we celebrate giving thanks, which by the way is what Eucharist means in Greek.
Does it make thanksgiving disingenuous to call it a duty? Shouldn’t it be a spontaneous voluntary act? I understand the word “duty” to have the same function in this case as the word “work” in John 6:29, where Jesus says, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” John 6:29 at first glance seems like the worst Protestant caricature: the whole of Christianity reduced to an intellectual proposition — “Sure, I believe in Jesus and whatever else you tell me to agree with; now can I get on with my selfish life?”
But here’s the thing. When you really believe in Jesus as opposed to just believing that He exists, died for your sins, rose from the dead, etc, then it completely changes your reality. Everything else flows from that basic “work.” The “duty” of thanksgiving is analogous to the “work” of believing. Thanksgiving is the foundation of Christian ethics, because thankful people do the right things for the right reasons a lot more readily than people whose lives flow out of a sense of entitlement or bitterness.
So how is thanksgiving “salvation”? It depends on how you understand what we need to be saved from. Many Christians from my evangelical background think of salvation in terms of God having impossibly high expectations for humans to live up to and Jesus compensating for our lack of ability to live up to them by dying on the cross so that if we officially “accept” this sacrifice, then God will give us a free pass to heaven. The more that I read Christian teachings from past centuries, the more I realize that this is a tacky caricature of what Christianity really teaches. We are indeed eternally isolated from God by our sin, because of the ruin that sin causes to us rather than an abstract perfectionism on the part of God. Central to this ruin is the state of being that St. Augustine called homo curvatus en se, “humanity curved in upon itself,” in which I see myself the center of the universe and all my actions and observations are governed by self-preservation and self-justification. This is the way humans live because our eyes have been opened to our nakedness (Gen 3:7), the subtle decisive consequence of the Adam and Eve story.
We need to be rescued from the death that enters the world when we discover our nakedness and become defensive, anxious people who pretend to be self-reliant and isolate ourselves from God and each other by rationalizing our sins. When we do the “work” of John 6:29 and put our trust in Christ, our eyes are opened to a universe that belongs to a loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit instead of being a chaotic war of all against all in which our only duty is to keep ourselves and our families safe. We become children of God when we discover that the Creator of the universe took on human flesh, died on a cross, and rose from the grave in order to establish the means of our liberation from the futility of trying to hide our shameful nakedness. Instead of seeing life as a reward that we have to secure for ourselves by working hard and elbowing other people out of the way, we come to see life as a gift from a God who gives everything freely so that we can enter into the spirit of grateful surrender that breaks the curse of self-justification. Our lives become the thanksgiving that is our salvation.
So thanksgiving is indeed our duty and our salvation, even though there’s a whole lot more to that combination of words than first appears. Happy Thanksgiving! Remember that everything you have is a gift from God; discover the gratitude that sets us free.