Growing up, as much as I enjoyed Christmas Day and receiving the myriad of gifts I received from my grandparents, aunts and uncles, I dreaded the days immediately following Christmas. Those were the days my mother set aside for my brothers and me to write the dreaded thank you notes. At the age of six, when you had two sets of grandparents, a great grandmother, seven aunts and a great aunt, and a few close family friends who may as well have been aunts and uncles, this added up to a total of fourteen thank you notes. From my perspective of as a very antsy six-year, this number of notes seemed like more than anyone could possibly handle.
Despite my protests and procrastination, my mother would not bend. So when I finally gave up the fight, I sat down and did as directed. I can’t imagine these notes were very satisfying to the receiver. Effort on my part was low. On average the notes were basically the same. “Dear ________ thank you for the (insert gift) I like it a lot. Love Craig.” Now I have to admit, if the gift was a toy, you may have gotten an extra line about how I enjoyed playing with it, but if the gift was clothing, well . . .from my perspective you were lucky you got a note at all.
In hindsight, even though I cannot say I have mastered the art of the thank you note, I am glad my mother taught her sons the discipline of writing them.
However, despite the etiquette of saying thank you, expressing gratitude is not the strong suit of American culture, nor for us as a Christian people. How many of us are proficient or comfortable at asking God to answer our latest concern, but fail to express gratitude in our prayers? As a priest, I have no problems with being quiet with God, or praying on behalf of others, but I fail to make it a regular habit to say thank you for all the blessings in my life that I simply take for granted.
A regular part of any spiritual practice should be the act of listing those things we are thankful for. Not just to make us feel better or to keep us balanced when times get rough, but as a way to remind ourselves that most of what we are thankful for has little to do with our own actions, but are the result of the grace of God, such as family and health, creation, etc.
I offer this discussion on gratitude as a way preface this morning’s Gospel reading. Our writer has again brought us to the home of Lazarus. Located in the town of Bethany, it was less than a day’s walk to Jerusalem. Last time we were here, Lazarus’ sister Martha became upset with her sister Mary because she failed to help her with the dinner she was preparing for Jesus. This time there would be no quarreling. There was too much to be thankful for. Lazarus, who was recently dead for four days, had been brought back to life by Jesus.
I can imagine the energy Martha poured into preparing this special dinner. Cooking and hospitality was her forte’ as the lady of the house. Now that Lazarus was alive again, she no longer had to worry what would become of her and Mary. In Jesus day, a woman had no social standing and no rights on her own. Despite being Lazarus’ next of kin, neither she nor Mary were entitled to receive a penny of his estate. Unmarried and without male children, the courts would have assigned guardianship over the sisters. With Lazarus’ return to the living, her life and her status was stable once again. Essentially, Jesus’ raising of Lazarus also gave the sisters back their lives as well. So I can imagine Martha, the type A personality she was, cooking and cleaning with gusto as she prepared this meal in Jesus’ honor.
Mary was also grateful. Unlike her sister, cooking and cleaning was not her thing. As the Gospels portray, Mary was more a type B personality, more focused on relationship building than doing. In keeping with her personality, Mary finds an intimate and personal way to express her gratitude by washing Jesus’ feet.
What is lost on us as modern day readers is how humbling the act of washing another’s feet was back then. In Jesus day, a good host always offered to have the feet of a guest washed by the lowliest member of the household. Mary shows her appreciation for Jesus by becoming his lowliest servant, and then anoints his feet with oil worth almost a year’s wages.
Both sisters on this night of celebration demonstrate the depth of their gratitude as each in her own way offers the whole of their beings to Jesus out of thanksgiving for their lives and for the life of Lazarus.
Part of our annual observance on Lent, is to remind ourselves of how dependent we are on God. On Ash Wednesday, we are told we are dust, and to dust we shall return. At the time of committal, our prayer book again reminds us that we are dust with the words, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” According to the book of Genesis, it is God who created us from the basic elements of the ground, who formed us in the Divine image, and literally breathed life into us. It is, therefore, God who created the miracle of who each of us is. And it is God, through Christ, despite the darkness and the evil in which we participate, who has opened the way for us to life beyond the grave.
All of life is predicated on God. At the offertory each week we declare, “all things come from you O Lord, and of your own have we given you.”
This week’s Gospel challenges us to ask how generous are we in demonstrating our gratitude to God. Are we like my six year old self, who begrudgingly said thank you with a few slovenly written words on a notecard? Or . . . are we like Martha and Mary, who now appreciate how fragile and truly dependent we are on the grace of God and generously show their gratitude by giving all that they are and all that they have to God.
All thing come from you O Lord, and of your own we have given you.