Luke 17:12-19; Col 1:12-18
Ten men were healed, one returned to give thanks. This is the same Gospel that we read on Thanksgiving day, and now we hear it again weeks later. To give thanks to God is not just something we do once a year, or even just once a day, but it is something that is essential to our life as Christians – it is as much a part of working out our salvation as denying ourselves or repentance. It is as much a part of our communion with God as prayer itself. Today, the Apostle also speaks of “Giving thanks to the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints…” and with these words explains for us the importance of thanksgiving for our salvation. It would be easy to misread this text and miss the point, however, let us consider it carefully for a moment. The apostle says specifically “Giving thanks … which hath made us worthy …” It would be easy to hear instead that it is God Who made us worthy (and indeed in the end that is true, for God gives to us all things) but that is not what the apostle wrote. He is not talking here about God’s actions, but rather ours and the consequences of those actions. It is the act of giving thanks that is integral to our salvation for in giving thanks we are made worthy of the inheritance of the saints. How does thanksgiving do this for us.
When we give thanks to God, we recognize that we are not self sufficient, but that we depend on His mercy, compassion and lovingkindness. He is the One Who provides for us, we do not provide for ourselves. He is the One Who cares for us, we do not take care of ourselves. He is the One Who orders our lives, we do not make our own way. Elsewhere the apostle says as a commandment, “In everything give thanks” reminding us that all things come from God and all things are good and useful for our salvation. The act of thanksgiving implies our own weakness and deficiency at the same time that it acknowledges God’s strength and all-sufficiency.
The Apostle goes on to state that we give thanks to God because He has delivered us from the power of darkness and brought us into His Kingdom; He has redeemed us and forgiven us and in Jesus Christ has united us to Himself. All of these actions of God are necessary for our salvation, but we are unable to accomplish even a small part of one of them – all of these things are accomplished by Him alone. And because of this, we offer to Him our thanksgiving.
The Apostle then also describes God as the One Who created all things, both the spiritual world as well as the physical world. All things, he says, were created by God and for Himself. He is the reason and purpose for anything that exists. There is nothing that is outside of His purpose and plan – everything, ourselves included, has a place in His purpose. For us men especially He has established the church as His body in this world and we are part of that body – our purpose is to become part of Him and to be united with Him.
When we begin to perceive this grand purpose and plan of God, we also see something else – we see our own distance from God, the gulf created by our sin. We see that because of our sin, we are unable to fulfill the role that He has planned for us, unable to assume the place that He has prepared for us, unable to enter into the union with Him for which He destined us. We see that we have set up barriers between God and ourselves which prevent us from coming to Him. And as our love for God grows we regret those barriers, we repent.
The staretz, Archimandrite Sophrony of Essex, confirms this link between seeing God as the Creator and Fashioner of all things and our repentance. He says, “Unless we contemplate the primary creative idea of God concerning man – unless we experience the holiness of God – regret over the loss caused by our fall will not be strong enough. … As we shed bitter tears over our sins, in miraculous fashion, we become aware of God Himself in us, clasping us close in Fatherly love …” See how he draws this link between our awareness of God as our creator and our repentance. These things are linked and cannot be separated. Thanksgiving brings to us an awareness of God’s all-sufficiency and that very awareness brings us to repentance. Thanksgiving and repentance go hand in hand.
As we see, more and more, the great purpose of God for us in His creation and as we see more and more His love and compassion for us, the more our love for Him grows; the desire to fulfill our purpose and to work in harmony with His will also grows in us. We see that we must indeed “deny ourselves” setting aside what we want, our designs, our plans and our desires and instead become what God wants. As the Baptist said when asked about Christ, we also come to the point of saying, “I must decrease and He must increase” (Jn 3:30).
In the life of Saint Patapius whom we celebrate today as well as in the life of St Nicholas whose feast we also just celebrated, we see this very abandonment of self and its result. Patapius was a man born in the city of Thebes in Egypt. He left the city that he might go into the desert and live for God alone. In time, his struggles and piety became known in the city and many came out into the desert to visit him and observe his holy way of life. In order to preserve his prayer, Patapius abandoned his place in the desert and went to Constantinople. There, no one knew him and he could blend anonymously into the mass of the populace. He built himself a hut next to the city wall and there lived as a recluse, keeping silence and speaking with no one but God. He lived there as a stranger to all except to God. But Jesus Christ, seeing that Patapius had emptied himself completely and had become instead a vessel of grace, revealed Patapius to the citizens of the city and our Lord used him according to His own design and plan for the building up and welfare of the Church, His body. St Nicholas likewise, entrusting himself to the will of God, fled from human vanity, from his town of Patara, and come to the city of Myra in Lycia, where he knew no-one and was known by none. There he went unnoticed, waiting only for God to direct his life. Our Lord, again seeing that Nicholas had become a vessel of grace and an instrument apt to His purpose chose to miraculously point out the saint to the Synod of bishops as the successor to the episcopal see of Myra, even though he was at that time completely unknown to them (although he was well known to God.) In these two saints we see the effect of complete self denial, of emptying ourselves that we might be filled with the grace of God. They both left all that they might serve God alone and He then found them to be tools fit for His hand. The more we are able to abandon ourselves in order to serve God, the more He will be able to come to us and use us according to His design and desire.
This then is our life as Christians, to decrease in order that Jesus Christ might increase in us. We accomplish this decrease by repentance, which is the heart of self denial – weeping over that which is lost and fanning the flames of desire to acquire God’s grace. This whole process of returning to God begins with thanksgiving for it is in the lens of thanksgiving that we begin to see God as He is and we recognize our own weakness and deficiency. It is this thanksgiving that makes our salvation possible. Let us then not neglect the act of thanksgiving in our daily lives. It is not something we do only once a year, or even once a day – but rather it is ingrained into our continual prayer which is active in our hearts every moment of our lives.