Day 3 — Gratitude (Monday, 18 February – Monday, 4 March, 2013)

Gratitude.

There wasn’t a lot of “help” for this week’s writing. Basically the gist of it was to look and notice the world around me and be contemplative about general revelation and my place in it.

I’m a nature photographer for starters — I can find beauty and wonder where others may miss it. If I send you an e-mail, you never know when you might find an essay contemplating the lives of the local pigeon population hiding in the middle. I don’t claim perfection in my contemplation, but I also know I frequently find myself on the explaining end of contemplation that never occurred to a person who rarely walks about the world. I could have been a very devout pagan if the Holy Spirit had never crashed into my world. I love general revelation. I get into arguments with very cranky dogmatic Protestants about my love for general revelation. So, okay…great. Now what?

So I looked at the other readings. Ephesians 1:3-11 was among them — yes, what Christ has done/enabled/given is a beautiful reason for gratitude, but I also know where the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises are taking me (to the cross and resurrection). What other readings?

From Certain as the dawn, a poem by Peter G. van Breeman, S.J. (link is here):

All our life is your gift

Almighty God,
we are the work of your hands
which you will never abandon.
All our life is your gift;
all your power is in your being.
You spend yourself on each of us.
We thank you that our life is rooted in yours;
we thank you for all the opportunities you give us
and for the light that shines on our path,
that warms our hearts.
We pray that gratefulness may prompt us
to live life to the full,
to remain always open to your surprising ways,
and to glorify you through the fruits we bear
today and every day, for ever and ever. Amen

And so what would not stretch me would be another post about nature, I’m going to wait on the meditations on all Christ has done (well, formally in-writing as part this anyway — I live every day in deep gratitude for all Christ has made possible for my life). What struck me for meditation and contemplation was the lives of those in the Bible who thanked God or were grateful in either extraordinary ways or ways that were set apart from others. Also, I needed a really amazing picture of the stories.

My first thought was when Jesus healed the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) and only one — the Samaritan — came back to thank him. I can’t vouch for the other nine, nor do I wish to speculate anything of why or why not they might have just gone on with life. To be a leper under Levitical law rendered one untouchable. These were people who had to move about the world declaring: “Unclean! Unclean!” so that all in their presence could move away. We are social creatures, to be untouchable is — essentially — a curse. I still don’t know what the other nine were thinking, but I think the Samaritan knew the measure of Christ’s mercy, for it was an extraordinary thing for a Jew to show any mercy to a {filthy, half-breed} Samaritan.

But that’s about as far as I got. That story is almost more about extraordinary ingratitude than it is about gratitude.

I dismissed the woman healed of a discharge of blood (Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:45-48), her gratitude was no-doubt great, but her story is a story of faith.

The Crucifixion, about 1315–20, Giotto di Bondone. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 17 11/16 x 12 13/16 in. (45 x 32.5 cm). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, Inv. N. 167. Photo M. Bertola

The Crucifixion, about 1315–20, Giotto di Bondone. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 17 11/16 x 12 13/16 in. (45 x 32.5 cm). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, Inv. N. 167. Photo M. Bertola

In an indirect way Mary Magdalene comes to mind. She was healed from seven demons and was apparently among the patrons of Jesus and his disciples (Luke 8:1-3). She was among the women at the Crucifixion who followed his body to the grave (Matthew 27:55-61), and was the first to witness the resurrection (Mark 16:1-8). What strikes me as extraordinary about Mary Magdalene is that what is referenced in the gospel is not the details of the circumstances of her healing — what is referenced are the marks of her gratitude for that healing. She didn’t merely fall on her face and give thanks to Jesus as Lord — she literally followed him, and put her own resources on the line as well. She was among those who followed him to his death, to the grave, and beyond to take care of his body. That’s love. That’s gratitude.

The Crucifixion; The Lamentation, about 1340, Master of the Dominican Effigies. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 14 3/8 x 12 5/8 in. (36.5 x 32 cm). The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Presented by Harold Bompas, 1941, WA1941.14 (A676, A677)

The Crucifixion; The Lamentation, about 1340, Master of the Dominican Effigies. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 14 3/8 x 12 5/8 in. (36.5 x 32 cm). The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Presented by Harold Bompas, 1941, WA1941.14 (A676, A677)

Recently I was at an exhibition at The Getty Center in Los Angeles about art from Florence at the dawn of the Renaissance. It was almost exclusively religious and devotional art of various saints and gospel scenes. One thing that struck me was how Mary Magdalene was most often portrayed at the crucifixion in those paintings and illuminated manuscripts — she was bare-headed, kneeling at the foot of the cross, embracing the cross and weeping, as blood dripped down from the wound in Christ’s feet. There were others in those images who were also clearly experiencing distress and despair, but none with the unrestrained passion of Mary Magdalene.

The Crucifixion, about 1315–20, Pacino di Bonaguida. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. 32 x 17 1/2 in. (81.2 x 44.5 cm). Fondazione di Studi di Storia dell'Arte Roberto Longhi di Firenze

The Crucifixion, about 1315–20, Pacino di Bonaguida. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. 32 x 17 1/2 in. (81.2 x 44.5 cm). Fondazione di Studi di Storia dell’Arte Roberto Longhi di Firenze

Walking through galleries looking at that portrayal in that way…image, after image, after image…it’s haunting to say the least. Mary Magdalene’s story captures my attention for gratitude, but in all the Bible I found one whose gratitude is untouchable.

Hannah.

There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”

As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.

They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her. And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the LORD.”

Robert Leinweber.  "Hannah Taking Samuel to Eli."

Robert Leinweber. “Hannah Taking Samuel to Eli.”

The man Elkanah and all his house went up to offer to the LORD the yearly sacrifice and to pay his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, so that he may appear in the presence of the LORD and dwell there forever.” Elkanah her husband said to her, “Do what seems best to you; wait until you have weaned him; only, may the LORD establish his word.” So the woman remained and nursed her son until she weaned him. And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine, and she brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh. And the child was young. Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. And she said, “Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the LORD. For this child I prayed, and the LORD has granted me my petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the LORD. As long as he lives, he is lent to the LORD.”

And he worshiped the LORD there.

And Hannah prayed and said,

“My heart exults in the LORD;
my horn is exalted in the LORD.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in your salvation.

“There is none holy like the LORD:
for there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the LORD is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble bind on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The LORD kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.

“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness,
for not by might shall a man prevail.
The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces;
against them he will thunder in heaven.
The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king
and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

Then Elkanah went home to Ramah. And the boy was ministering to the LORD in the presence of Eli the priest.
— 1 Samuel 1:1-2:11 (ESV)

It is perhaps a simple sadness to think of Hannah with no children — but it’s only simple until you start threading doctrine and tradition through it. At the very least it made people suspicious, but quite often it was viewed outright as a curse (it also made you a bad wife). We hear of Penninah’s curses, but the larger truth is that hers was most likely a socially-acceptable opinion (albeit a rude one).

There are a few quiet moments in the historical narrative of the Bible where you can taste the tears — this is one of them. What gives me the most pause in this story is is that as she asks God to find favor with her to grant her a son — in the very same breath — she promises God that if he grants her petition she will give her son up (fully!) to God’s service.

That’s a maturity of faith and perspective rarely matched elsewhere in the Bible. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac was great, but Hannah was not only willing to give up her son before he was conceived or born…she kept that promise (and even Abraham can’t touch that). A woman who declared to the LORD that if she could have the one thing she most wanted in the world (and the one thing in the world most tempting to set up as an idol), she would give that most precious thing back to God.

That’s huge.

Reformed theology teaches that while our good works are mot a means to “earn” salvation, that our good works are a way to show gratitude in response to the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice and the sanctifying grace available to those committed to be faithful disciples of Christ. That’s no small thing, and as I’ve considered this perspective over many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that “gratitude” isn’t “gratitude” without a response. Whether sacrifice will ultimately be required is (and remains) an open question; whether sacrifice is ultimately required required depends on individual circumstances, but ultimately what is always required is a soul-level willingness to make such a precious sacrifice.

That’s gratitude, but the plain truth remains that we are hard-wired to be very selfish creatures. Can we consider and truly internalize van Breeman’s poem as more than just beautiful words, but a blueprint for the right attitude of our hearts? Do we live life as if each day is a gift? Is our life rooted in God, in Christ? Are we really thankful for ALL life’s opportunities…or just the ones that we like or that are easy? Do we even see the light shining on our path any more, or do we simply take it for granted? Does gratefulness cut through the whining? Do we even care if we live life to the full or are we content to merely muddle through? Does how we live our lives glorify God? Today? Every day?

Something to think about.

I have no claims to perfection in this, I ask myself these things and can see my own failings and falling short. I fall very short of perfection in this, we all do. But that we are God’s workmanship remains.

Custom needlepoint Bible Cover, acrylic yarn on plastic canvas, 2012

Custom needlepoint Bible Cover, acrylic yarn on plastic canvas, 2012

I was trying to think of a song or hymn to use for this, then Isaac Watts’ famous hymn hit me:

When I survey the woundrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God:
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down:
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

And the last verse, the one that gives me chills — this is the meditation on the gratitude response, our response to Christ’s sacrifice:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Note: The needlework is mine, and original design for part of a bible cover. Take the time to find God in all things, and to thank God for his blessings. Bless you – VKS

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3 thoughts on “Day 3 — Gratitude (Monday, 18 February – Monday, 4 March, 2013)

  1. Pingback: Latest Lenten post up (Gratitude) | St. Val the Eccentric

  2. Pingback: Reflections for the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene | St. Val the Urban Monastic

  3. Pingback: Gratitude and looking toward my lesson this Sunday | St. Val the Eccentric

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