Thursday, November 23, 2006

It's A Wonderful Thanksgiving

(Thanksgiving-Year B;This homily was given 23 November, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Luke 17:11-19)

There is a very powerful line in one of T.S. Eliot’s famous works called the “Four Quartets.” It is found in the final poem, “Little Gidding,” and it has to do with pilgrimages and journeys of faith.

The point that Eliot makes is that the purpose of a pilgrimage is not to change the way we look at the place we are traveling to, be it Jerusalem, or Rome, or even someplace local, like LaSalette Shrine. The purpose of a pilgrimage is to change our perspective about our point of origin. It is to return back to the place we began, and see that place with new eyes; to have a renewed vision of who and where we are.

The line is both powerful and beautiful. He writes:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (No. 4 of ‘Four Quartets’)

We find that journey of faith in our Gospel this morning in the story of the ten lepers healed by Jesus. St. Luke tells us they began that journey in a very awkward, even painful, position before Christ. He says “they stood at a distance from him” (Luke 17:12). They were not allowed to approach him, on account of their disease and condition; they were social outcasts who could only stand “at a distance.”

And yet they were close enough to cry out for help, and to ask Christ for healing. Jesus quickly answers that prayer. He says to them, “Go show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14), and in that very act of obedience they come to experience the healing so desperately longed for.

One of them, recognizing not only what has happened but Who has brought about that tremendous gift, returns to the place he started. But now everything has changed. He no longer stands off “at a distance” from Christ. He draws very close indeed, and falls down at the feet of Jesus in praise, adoration and overwhelming gratitude. He has come to understand what T. S. Eliot meant:

The end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It is during this time of the year that we begin to hear the same story, told in so many different ways. Whether we like it or not, the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol,” is already showing in theatres. And how many times in the days and weeks ahead will we see the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” playing on TV? Really it is just the same story, with the names and the places changed.

Ebenezer Scrooge makes that journey through Christmas past, present, and future, only to come right back again to where he started on that cold Christmas Eve. But he suddenly sees the world he lives in a whole new light. He has a new understanding of himself and is overwhelmed with joy.

George Bailey, in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” comes to the end of himself and regrets that he was ever born. He thinks he has no reason to live and makes a decision to end his life entirely. And yet suddenly he is shown what life would look like without him, and everything changes. He comes back, in the end, right to the place where he started and has a renewed sense of gratitude for his job and his own place in that small town. He is filled with love for his family and all that he has been given.

This Thanksgiving, God invites us to make that same journey of faith and that pilgrimage of gratitude, to come to a new vision of all that we have received from Him. We do that in a very practical way. Sometime today, I would suggest that we find some quiet place to sit down in the presence of God and to thank Him for five things that we have been given.

It might be our family, our friends, or our Catholic faith. We may have had a great year filled with many blessings, so we should be thankful to God for that gift. Or perhaps we have had the worse year ever. Maybe we have experienced tragedies or difficulties, but we made it through. Because of our faith, or our friends and family, we were able to move forward with hope. Today, thank God for that. Whatever it may be, think of five things that you are thankful for today.

And then, in the days and weeks ahead, whenever the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” comes on the TV or you hear them advertised on the radio, thank God for five more things. Or maybe you just remain thankful for the same five things.

This day we simply ask God to guide us more completely into that journey of faith and pilgrimage of gratitude, that we may come to realize, along with George Bailey, Ebenezer Scrooge, and the leper in St. Luke’s Gospel, that:

The end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.