“Thanksgiving characterizes the prayer of the Church which, in celebrating the Eucharist, reveals and becomes more fully what she is. … The thanksgiving of the members of the Body participates in that of their Head.” (CCC 2637)
For the wonders that astound us,
For the truths that still confound us,
Most of all, that love has found us,
Thanks be to God.
—“For the Fruits of His Creation,” Traditional Welsh Melody
When we give thanks to God — for whom, by the way, homage must be paid — what exactly is it that we are thanking him for? For the world that he made, most certainly, including especially the gift of life inasmuch as no creature is capable of generating its own.
But what about thanking God for his own life, never mind a myriad of things he has done with it, like taking the time to create so many splendid specimens like ourselves? “Glory to God in the highest,” we exclaim at Holy Mass. “We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory, Lord God, heavenly King, O God, almighty Father.”
This is the highest possible tribute the creature can pay. And not, heaven knows, just because of this or that favor bestowed, however gratefully received, but simply due to God’s own glory, the sheer dazzling radiance of his being God. Here is the first of countless prodigies, the one intended to kickstart all the rest. The fact that there is a God, that he is replete with glory — this is the essential and primary motive force for giving thanks.
And so, bringing to mind that lovely Welsh melody we find in the Church’s hymnal, we declare before God, paying due homage to his glory: “For the wonders that astound us.” That God, the great I AM WHO AM, should be God, and that we were made to give him praise and glory, is without question the first and greatest of all possible wonders.
And the second thing for which we are to be thankful? “For the truths that still confound us…” That God’s very name, for instance, the baseline of his identity as God, is Truth, Being. What could be more confounding than that? A God who self-identifies as Logos, whose eternal self-utterance should be the Word, which he both receives from the Father and thereupon returns to the Father, and with whom he joins from all eternity in breathing forth the Spirit? Is knowing that not enigma enough for anyone? Especially as no finite mind could ever succeed in wrapping itself around an Infinite Other.
And, then, finally, there is this, which is surely the most compelling reason of all to give thanks: "that love has found us…” That the God who has neither beginning nor end, who needs nothing and no one to be God, has yet chosen to give himself quite recklessly away in sheer unremitting pursuit of so paltry a creature as man. A creature, moreover, who stands not only at an infinite distance from God in utter ontological poverty, but remains steeped in the hopelessness of sin and death. It is a prospect to beggar the imagination.
But not, praise God, every imagination. There are Catholic poets (one thinks at once of Richard Crashaw, England’s purest bloom of the Baroque), who have given sublime expression to this fact, this central paradox of the Christian faith, asking with the utmost daring:
How a pure Spirit should incarnate bee,
And life it selfe weare Deaths fraile Livery.
That hee whom the Sun serves, should faintly peepe
Through clouds of Infant flesh: that hee the old
Eternall Word should bee a Child, and weepe.
That hee who made the fire, should feare the cold;
That Heav’ns high Majesty his Court should keepe
In a clay-cottage, by each blast control’d.
That Glories selfe should serve our Griefs, & feares:
And free Eternity, submit to years.
This is no God of wrath, bent on settling every score with an errant race of men, but rather a God who cannot abide the loss of even the least of his creatures. Whose boundless compassion should awaken in us no end of wonderment and thanksgiving. “Lord,” Crashaw asks, “what is man? Why should he coste thee / So dear? what had his ruin lost thee? / Lord, what is man? that thou hast overbought / So much a thing of nought?”
Only a God of love — indeed, a God who is love — would dare undertake so profound a descent into the impacted mud and mire of a broken and benighted world.
Why should a peice of peevish clay plead shares
In the Eternity of thy old cares?
Why shouldst thou bow thy awfull Brest to see
What mine own madnesses have done with me?
Should not the king still keepe his throne
Because some desperate Fool’s undone?
Or will the world’s Illustrious eyes
Weep for every worm that dyes.
The answer is yes. That until the final trumps, when Christ’s agony upon the Cross shall at last have ended and the heavenly bins are filled to overflowing with the souls Christ suffered to redeem.
Even the awful Day of Judgment, Crashaw reminds us, and the terrors that rightly surround its coming, will have been softened in the warm glow of God’s own recollection as to why he came among us in the first place:
Dear, remember in that Day
Who was the cause thou cams’t this way.
Thy sheep was stray’d; And thou wouldst be
Even lost thy self in seeking me.
Only let us recollect that when it is God, Eternal Love himself, who sets out in search of the lost sheep, neither he, nor the sheep he seeks, will Love suffer to lose. And thus be thankful that it is so.