Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Response of Gratitude

(This homily was given Thanksgiving Day, 24 November, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

Today we celebrate a holiday that is unique to us as Americans; no other nation shares this Thanksgiving Day with us. But thanksgiving is also distinctive to us as Christians. All throughout the Scriptures and in the tradition of our faith we are called to be a people of thanksgiving—to cultivate an attitude of gratitude—thankful to God and to those around us.

But if we are honest we can admit that it is not always easy to be thankful. It is not something that always comes naturally to us. In the Gospel this morning, the 10 lepers are given the “Thanksgiving Test,” and 90% of them fail it! Jesus points out that the only one who returned to give thanks was one who was least expected to do so. He was a Samaritan.

The Jews believed that the people of Samaria—who did not worship God in Jerusalem but in a separate place, on a separate mountain—that they were not worshiping God properly. They had gotten it all wrong. But as we can see in the Gospel, this Samaritan seems to be doing quite well. Jesus holds him up as a model for those who would praise God. And so, we can ask ourselves this morning: What can we do to imitate him? What did the thankful leper do that made him such a model of thanksgiving?

I would say that the answer to that question is: absolutely nothing! That’s the point. Thanksgiving is not something that begins with us. It is, above all, a response to a gift given. It is our response to God for all the things He has given us. That is where thanksgiving comes from.

I would like to share a story that I think illustrates this point. It is a strange story; a strange, tragic and beautiful story. It happened just a year ago, last Thanksgiving. A group of college students home for the holiday came together to celebrate on a Friday night. They stole some credit cards and really began to charge up a storm. They bought DVD’s, video games; they even bought a Thanksgiving turkey!

At the end of the night, one of them—19 year old Ryan Cushing—decided to throw that turkey out the window of the car they were driving in. Picture that: a flying turkey. It would seem even comical if not for the tragic consequences of that careless act. He had thrown the turkey at another car coming in the opposite direction. It hit the windshield at a high rate of speed and struck the driver of that car, Victoria Ruvolo, who was nearly killed in the accident.

She woke up two weeks later, in a hospital with a tube attached to her throat, and looked into the mirror at a woman who she did not recognize. The impact had shattered both of her cheekbones and her jaw. It fractured one of her eye sockets, crushed-in her esophagus; doctors were afraid that she may have suffered minor brain damage. It took hours of surgery and months of painful recovery to reconstruct her face from the damage that had been done.

Just this last August, Ryan Cushing had his day in court. As I am sure you can imagine, the judge was ready to throw the book at him. The maximum sentence for his crime was 25 years in prison, and there was every indication that he would be given all of it . . . Until Victoria Ruvolo made her way to the front of the courtroom and begged the judge for leniency.

Later on, at his sentencing, she said to Ryan Cushing and to a crowded courtroom:

There is no room for vengeance in my life, and I do not believe a long, hard prison term would do you, me, or society any good.

In the end, Ryan Cushing got 6 months in jail instead of that 25 year sentence. Outside the courtroom he met Victoria Ruvolo for the first time, face to face. He was sobbing as he said that he was sorry and he begged her to forgive him. She embraced him, patted him on the back, and said: “It’s OK; I just want you to make your life the best that it can be.”

Where did she ever find the grace and strength—after all that she had been through—to reach out to that young man like that? Last month, at that sentencing, she read a statement in which she described all the pain and suffering she had endured from the events of that tragic night. But then she went on to say:

But despite all the fear and pain, I have learned from this horrific experience, and I have much to be thankful for. All of this has had a profound effect on me; I have learned to truly appreciate the preciousness of life. Each day when I wake up, I thank God simply because I am alive.

She received the grace and strength to reach out to Ryan Cushing because she realized all that God had given to her. She was responding to all that she had received, and to the preciousness of life. Later, outside the court, she said:

I gave him a second chance. God gave me a second chance at life, and I passed it on.

That’s gratitude in action. That is what it means to be thankful. Think of all the things she could have focused on, all the negative things that happened to her. Instead she focused on the gifts that God had given her, and she was grateful.

This Thanksgiving we take some time to reflect on all that we have been given; to see all that God has bestowed on us, most especially the precious gift of life. How are we responding to that gift? But, perhaps more importantly, we could ask: Who are the ones who might benefit this Thanksgiving by our response of gratitude for all that we have received from God?