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Gratitude In The Sacred Liturgy And Beyond

May 15, 2019 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


The flickering glow of a red sanctuary lamp near the Tabernacle in a quiet church has a lot to teach us, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. It is called a “perpetual” lamp, a lamp meant to burn unceasingly by night and by day, whether seen or unseen, and it bespeaks of unquenchable fire, an undying flame representing the unceasing Real Presence of our Lord in the sacrament of His love. But it also testifies to a fire meant to burn continually in the heart of man, the fire of love for his Creator, his response of undying love to God’s undying love for man.
Indeed, all authentic love is by its very nature unceasing, without interruption. And thus the Church’s supreme communication of love for her Divine Spouse, the sacred liturgy, is unceasing. The fire of this continual prayer of the Church is fed by more than one source, but among its most important motives is that of gratitude, of thanksgiving.
It is at the very moment of entering upon the Holy of Holies in the Mass, that inner sanctum of the Eucharistic Prayer within which the sublime moment of consecration is accomplished, that the Church through the lips of her priest solemnly declares, “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father” (Preface, The Roman Missal — ©2010 ICEL). Indeed, man has countless reasons to thank God “always and everywhere.”
Have you ever paused to think upon everything God has given you? Every breath, every heartbeat, every second of life is a gift from Him. Everyone and everything we love and treasure has been given to us by Him. In our everyday lives we find ourselves uninterruptedly immersed in and surrounded by the gifts of God, from all the beauty, fragrance, and light of a spring day to the innermost thoughts of the heart. What do we have that we have not received? And when are we ever without something to thank God for?
The sacred liturgy is permeated by a spirit of gratitude to God expressed in words and actions. To gauge a sense of this, I did an informal count of just how often the Latin word “gratias” (“thanks”) occurs in the text of the Missale Romanum (for convenience I used a 1920 edition); the word appears over ninety times.
In the Divine Office, a biblical canticle of thanksgiving serves as the summit of three of the canonical hours. In the morning office of Lauds, the Church makes her own the Benedictus, Zechariah’s spontaneous hymn of gratitude at the birth of his son St. John the Baptist (Luke 1:68-79).
In the evening office of Vespers, the words of thanksgiving of the most grateful of all God’s creatures, the Blessed Virgin Mary, uttered in her timeless Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), are offered anew. And as the Church closes the day with one final page of praise in the night office of Compline, she thanks God for the completed day with the Nunc dimittis, Simeon’s prayer in gratitude for having seen the world’s Salvation before the close of his life (Luke 2:29-32).
As the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc dimittis remind us, the Bible is filled with expressions of thanksgiving to God. Even amid the many dark verses of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, we find a profound profession of gratitude that God will never end His mercies: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, / his mercies never come to an end; / they are new every morning” (Lam. 3:22-23).
Over the centuries since the time of our Lord, the Church has echoed these inspired words of gratitude with compositions from the pens of generation upon generation of grateful believers. Among the very greatest of these is the Church’s ancient hymn of Matins, the Te Deum, attributed to St. Nicetas of Remesiana (+414). Beyond its use in the Divine Office, this hymn has been raised countless times to express the gratitude of the faithful for everything from the election of a new Roman Pontiff to the canonization of a new saint.
This integral dimension of gratitude in the sacred liturgy serves to explain why (among other reasons) the celebration of divine worship ought to be as beautiful, as excellent, as majestic, as glorious and solemn as the artistic talents of man can achieve. We are so utterly and overwhelmingly indebted to God for His countless gifts and mercies that we can never do enough in response.
It is like the two times that our Lord commanded Peter to lower his fishing nets for a catch and each time there were so many fish that the nets could scarcely be dragged in (Luke 5:4-7; John 20:6-11). We reel under the sheer weight of God’s gifts and are sent down on our knees in thanksgiving.
In the face of God’s boundless generosity toward us we experience “the basic confrontation of the creature, mere ‘dust and ashes,’ with the unattainable, absolute majesty of God revealed in the sacred humanity of Christ,” the keen perception that each of us is “a beggar before God,” as Dietrich von Hildebrand observed in a treatise he devoted to the subject of gratitude shortly before his death in 1977 (“Gratitude,” in Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand, The Art of Living, Manchester, NH, Sophia Institute Press, 1994, pp. 103, 107).
One of the most beautiful aspects of our perception of a gift from God is the realization that this gift is specifically “intended for me, that His love touches me personally” (Dietrich von Hildebrand, “Gratitude,” p. 107). We can all identify occasions in our lives when God has bestowed upon us something so exquisitely specific to us, something that only He, knowing the innermost secret depths of our heart, knowing the most intimate details of our hopes and aspirations, could understand just how very much it would mean to us.
Moreover, God loves to be “senselessly” extravagant and lavish in bestowing His gifts upon us. One could say that in a sense He is continually acting toward us as the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, daily putting upon us the best robe, a ring on our hand, shoes on our feet, and slaying the fatted calf for us (Luke 16:22-23).
Easter is a liturgical season of thanksgiving from the moment the Exultet is intoned at the Easter Vigil to the final Alleluia of Pentecost. While the human heart is often quite naturally moved by gratitude to exuberant expressions of excited jubilation, the most beautiful manifestations of thanksgiving, especially those directed to God, communicate serenity to the soul.
There is a recording of the Eastertide responsory Christus resurgens that illustrates this particularly well, sung by the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey of St. Maurice and St. Maur in Clervaux, Luxembourg. This chant is a setting of St. Paul’s words, “…Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9).
The slow, stately solemn tempo with which the monks sing this profession of Christ’s eternal victory over death impresses upon the heart the sheer magnitude of our debt to God, that this is a victory of eternal importance, a victory we take seriously because it is a matter of eternal life triumphing over eternal death, won by the infinitely priceless suffering and death of our Lord.
A comparable manifestation of gratitude both serene and sublime can be found in the Fifteenth String Quartet (Opus 132) of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). In 1825, Beethoven composed this work following his recovery from an intestinal illness he had feared would end his life. In the third movement he gives musical expression to his gratitude to God, annotating the movement with the title, “Holy hymn of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity.”

Genuine Gratitude

What we have said above does not mean, however, that expressions of passionate jubilation do not also have a place in the sacred liturgy. Think for example of the Eastertide Marian antiphon Regina Coeli (“Queen of Heaven, rejoice”). It is filled with the spirit of ardent joy that our Lord prophesied at the Last Supper:
“When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world” (John 16:21).
Perhaps one of the most distinctive gifts of Baroque Catholic Church architecture is its vivid communication of jubilation in the Resurrection of the Lord and the life of the world to come, with the painted ceilings of Baroque sanctuaries opening vistas revealing the eternal joy of the citizens of Heaven.
As Dietrich von Hildebrand observed, “In genuine gratitude toward God man becomes beautiful” (“Gratitude,” p. 107).
How fitting then that in expressing his gratitude to God through the sacred liturgy, man should do so by making the liturgy as beautiful as possible to communicate to the utmost that which “fills his heart” — his utter “astonishment at the gifts of God and the inexhaustibly blissful mystery of the infinite love and mercy of God” (ibid., pp. 108-109). Deo gratias!

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