Two of Rome’s great cathedrals are St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls and St. John Lateran Cathedral. They contain the remains of two of the church’s most famous apostles: Peter and Paul. The tomb of Paul is located in St. Paul’s, but his head is not there. For a view of the reliquary containing the head of Paul you must go to St. John Lateran. Above the High Altar is the canopy or baldacchino, a Gothic structure resting on four marble columns. Near the top the heads of the apostles Peter and Paul rest in separate but equal golden reliquaries. Although great treasures, the greatest treasure to God is when places of worship are filled with the praises of living people.
Advent is the forty days of preparation to celebrate Christmas. Other than Easter, there is no more appropriate time of the year for praise. As the Psalmist wrote, “Let us come before him with thanksgiving. Let us sing psalms of praise to him.” Sadly, there are dwindling numbers of people giving private thanks or joining in corporate praise to God for His goodness whether in the great cathedrals of Europe or the town and country churches of America.
Some social critics theorize that modern life has become so easy and comfortable that people can avoid facing the big issues of life and death. Says Michael Chandler, a priest at Canterbury Cathedral, “You can get to age 50 or higher without ever facing the death of somebody close to you.” What a contrast to the original Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Forty-five of the 102 Mayflower passengers died the first winter of 1620-1621. The survivors were thankful just to be alive. Everything beyond survival was an occasion for praise.
More and more, it seems that a sense of gratitude is fading from both our church and our culture. Given the prosperity of modern life, many of us have the sense that wealth and well-being are a right. This starts with young children, who, as John Sandel points out, are often showered with presents by their parents, so that the gifts they receive at holidays and on birthdays “are not recognized as gifts but are viewed instead as their due.”
Of course, children aren’t the only ones caught in this trap. Working teenagers and young adults increasingly use their earnings to load up on the latest TVs, computers, clothing and cars in a race toward a level of prosperity that previous generations took years and years to achieve. Living at home for longer periods, often free of any responsibility for room and board, they end up with an illusory sense of material well-being, a phenomenon social scientists call “premature affluence.” Once out in the world on their own, they are more likely to feel disappointment than gratitude as they adjust to a lower standard of living.
We’ve come to see the good things of life as an entitlement, rather than a gift, and we’ve lost the sense of wonder and surprise that gives birth to true thankfulness. Consequently, people come to church today with a different set of expectations. Instead of seeking out opportunities to express gratitude, many are looking for comfort, inspiration, stimulation and community. Now these are not bad things in and of themselves, but they line up more with self-improvement than with thanksgiving.
On the whole, we have developed a blindness to our blessings leading to a scarcity of gratitude attended by a paucity of thanksgiving which results in greatly diminished joy in life. If this world is to experience deep and abiding joy this Christmas, each one must seek to give thanks for as many of life’s blessings as possible, e.g. plain food but plenty of it, those fun Christmas socks, any car that is warmer than walking or riding a bike, a job instead of unemployed no matter how bad it seems, etc. The act of giving heartfelt thanks will warm a cold heart transforming it into a grateful heart. And gratitude, eventually always leads to joy. It is just a matter of connecting the dots.