When Billy Walsh was a youngster, his family lived near Mrs. Smithson. A widow eighty years of age, Mrs. Smithson was in constant pain and crippled by rheumatoid arthritis that ravaged her body. Living alone she could only walk a few steps at a time with the help of her cane. Every week when Billy’s mom went to the market, she took her son, who would always deliver groceries to the old widow. The family car would pull up into Mrs. Smithson’s driveway and the command would be heard, “Billy, here are Mrs. Smithson’s groceries.” That was all the instruction that was needed. Billy instantly responded, delivering the groceries with a sense of delight. Without fail Mrs. Smithson always gave Billy a quarter for his efforts.
The boy enjoyed the older woman, especially listening to her stories. She told him about her life, a beautiful, old church in the woods, horse and buggy rides on Sunday afternoons, and much about her family’s farm that had no modern conveniences such as electricity or running water. After a short time together the older woman would give Billy his quarter, which he would half-heartedly refuse, knowing that she would insist that he keep it. Usually he walked across the street to Johnson’s candy store and bought himself a treat.
One day in mid-December Billy was delivering the woman’s groceries as usual, but the season’s first significant snow was falling and the boy very much wanted to go out and play. He decided, therefore, to make his delivery and refuse to accept Mrs. Smithson’s weekly offering of 25 cents. The snow beckoned him to go outside.
Thus, Billy delivered the groceries much faster than normal. The older woman took the items out of the bag and told Billy where each went in the cabinets. Normally he enjoyed this, but the snow was calling. Then, somewhat suddenly Billy began to realize how lonely Mrs. Smithson must have been. She had been a widow for nearly twenty years and she had no children. Her only living relative, who never came to visit, lived far away in Boston. Nobody even called her at Christmas. When the holiday drew near, the house had no tree, no presents, and no stockings. For her, Christmas was just another day on the calendar. Billy began to think, Maybe the snow could wait a bit; it wasn’t that important.
Billy and Mrs. Smithson sat and talked about many things but especially past Christmas celebrations. The journey of reflection and memories must have been somewhat healing for the older woman. Then she said, “Well, Billy, I bet you want to go out and play in the snow.” She reached into her purse, fumbling to find the proper coin. “No, Mrs. Smithson,” he said, “I cannot take your money this time. I am sure you have more important uses for it.”
But she replied, “What more important thing could I do with it than give some to a friend at Christmas time?” She placed a silver dollar in Billy’s hand. He tried to give it back, but she would have none of that.
Billy hurried out the door and ran to Johnson’s candy store. He wondered what he would buy – a comic book, a chocolate soda, or ice cream. Then he spotted a Christmas card with an old country church on the cover. It was just like the church Mrs. Smithson had described from her youth. Billy purchased the card and borrowed a pen to sign his name. “Is this for your girlfriend?” Mr. Johnson asked. Billy started to say, “No,” but responded, “Well, yeah, I guess it is.”
He walked across the street and rang the widow’s doorbell. He handed her the card, saying, “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Smithson. Thank you for your kindness.”
The older woman’s hand began to tremble as she opened the card and read its contents. She began to cry. “Thank you very much,” and then in almost a whisper, “Merry Christmas to you.”
Several weeks later, one cold and blustery day, an ambulance arrived at Mrs. Smithson’s home. Mrs. Walsh, Billy’s mother, told her son that she had found Mrs. Smithson in bed; she had died peacefully in her sleep. On her nightstand was found, still illuminated by a light, a solitary Christmas card with an old country church on the cover.
In essence the story is one of thanksgiving, the young boy’s thanksgiving to the woman and her thanksgiving to him. Our second lesson, drawn from 1 Thessalonians, presents us with a message of thanksgiving, but one that is specific in giving thanks through giving.
Saint Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, most probably the first letter of his corpus, approximately in the year 50 AD. He had founded the Christian community at Thessalonica during his second missionary journey (Acts 17:1-9). In the short passage we heard proclaimed, the apostle offers thanks to the Thessalonians. He is grateful for them and the faith they have demonstrated, but he wants to suggest certain ways that thanksgiving must be manifest.
First, Paul suggests that thanksgiving must be an act of presence; he believes we demonstrate thanks to each other by being physically present with one another. As a nation, we in the United States have just completed the celebration of our national day of Thanksgiving. Most people gathered with families and friends; we were present to each other. We intentionally sought to be with these people at this special time. Many people traveled great distances; one might say we went out of our way to be present to special people in our lives. We made these journeys joyfully because these are people we know and love; there was no great strain to be physically present with these people. We welcomed the opportunity.
However, Paul’s concept of presence as an action of thanksgiving requires more of us. Being an excellent judge of human character, Paul realized that to be present to people we know, like, or perceive can be of advantage to us is not difficult at all. He realized the need, and so must we, to move beyond being present simply to those we like, but in an act of thanksgiving, to be present to those we know and possibly do not like. I suspect at the outset Billy was not too pleased to be present to Mrs. Smithson, as it would take him away from his friends. But he learned about the importance of being present, especially to those who needed him most. Equally importantly he discovered the peace and beauty that came to him through his act of thanksgiving. He found that he was serving not only the individual, but God who gives us the opportunity to be present and serve.
Being present can manifest itself in many different ways. We need to take up the challenge and be thankful by visiting a neighbor, a colleague at work, or a member of our church community who is sick, whether in the hospital or at home. Taking the time that we seemingly do not possess to be present with another and simply sit and listen is a great gift, almost a lost art in today’s world. Many times all people need is simply a compassionate ear. We need to be present with the elderly, family members most assuredly, but also those we know in various ways. We need to be present for special events – birthdays, anniversaries, and weddings. But the everyday events, being present for meals, sporting events of children, and family time together is essential. Paul is asking the Thessalonians to be present to each other and thereby demonstrate thanksgiving. The same is true for us.
A second aspect of Saint Paul’s concept of thanksgiving is mutual love. He writes, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). As the first season of the new liturgical year, Advent presents us the opportunity for new beginnings, to start afresh in demonstrating mutual love. If we are at odds with someone it is the perfect time to once again demonstrate the love to which all Christians are called. Jesus never held a grudge. In fact, we recall his words on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Disagreements arise within families, coworkers, neighbors, and even within our church communions. Paul’s words encourage us to “drop the hatchet” and move toward reconciliation and love. Still, we must go further. We must reach across borders and boundaries that separate and drive people apart. Racial and ethnic divisions, national boundaries, and even religious denominations and teachings keep us from being the mutually loving people that is part of Paul’s thanksgiving message to the Thessalonians.
Instead of division and strife we should offer love as the concept of belonging, unity, and harmony. A thanksgiving of mutual love requires us to be inclusive in all we do and say. Jesus continually crossed borders, both literally and figuratively, to demonstrate an inclusive ethic with all people. He visited lands and cities outside Israel, such as Tyre, Sidon, and the Gerasene Territory. He never shied away from lepers, cripples, the blind, or others with physical handicaps. On the contrary, he embraced these people, demonstrating an ethic of being inclusive.
Rather than being inclusive, too often people in contemporary life are exclusive. We choose our friends, opportunities, and associations with great care. Only certain people or possibilities that pass our personal litmus test show up on our radar screens. People are chosen based on their attributes, skills, and the possibilities they bring in our lives. Opportunities similarly are chosen if they will advance our personal or professional lives or serve us in an advantageous way. The thanksgiving effort of mutual love that Paul preaches to the Thessalonians is completely antithetical to such an exclusive way of thinking or acting.
Paul’s third aspect of thanksgiving is proper conduct. He writes, “May he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:13). The new start that Advent brings challenges us to transform our lives of faith and make them more conformable to that of Christ. We should use this time to root out vices that ill-affect our health – smoking, overheating, excessive drinking, or laziness. It is a time to cast out hatred, jealousy, pride, and arrogance, those things that create violence in our lives, and replace them with justice, goodness, humility, kindness, and those things that generate peace. In short, we must root out actions that are inconsistent with our common Christian vocation to holiness. As a Christian hymn goes, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” We must find peace in our hearts by doing what is right. Right conduct leads directly to peace within our hearts.
There is a short little story that aptly illustrates this point. One day a young man answered a want ad for a farm hand. He told the owner about his previous experience, which was abundant, and his references were impeccable. He ended the interview in a rather odd way, however, by telling the owner that he could count on him, because he could sleep during the wind. The owner was confused but he could not argue with the man’s credentials, so he was given the job.
Late one night a fierce Midwest storm arose. It was two in the morning, but the farmer arose, got dressed, and went outside to see what needed to be secured. First, he checked the barn, but the doors were closed, shutters were locked tight, and the animals were tethered and safe. He next checked the springhouse, the pump room, and storage shed, and all the trucks. Everything was secured. He ran from place-to-place thinking most assuredly that something must be out of order. Finally, the owner stuck his head in the bunkhouse and saw the farmhand fast asleep. He remembered the curious statement of the farmhand when he was interviewed, “I can sleep during the wind.” The farmer smiled and thought to himself, “Yes, he is at peace and has done all things well. He can sleep during the wind.”
As we begin a new liturgical year by lighting the first candle on the Advent wreath, Saint Paul encourages us to manifest an attitude of thanksgiving. While saying “thank you” in a physical sense is a start, we must go further. Paul tells the Thessalonians that he is grateful to them, but now they must demonstrate an ethic of thanksgiving of presence, mutual love, and right conduct to others. Similarly, we need to manifest thanksgiving in our lives. People need us to be present to them; they have the right to our love and respect. Society and God challenge us to reform our lives more along that of Jesus Christ. As we get set for our Advent journey to begin Let’s not leave behind Thanksgiving and remember always to be thankful. Our attitude can be so simply and succinctly stated, as articulated by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, “May all we do and say give greater glory and honor to God.” Amen.