“Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?” (Luke 17:17).
In Saint Basil the Great’s First Prayer in Preparation for Holy Communion, he acknowledges – and we acknowledge with him when we offer this prayer up to God – that we are so often “thankless and graceless.” Saint Basil makes this claim after enumerating what “Our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ our God” has done for us when He took on our human nature, suffered crucifixion for our sake, and renewed our human nature by His own blood. Yet, says the saint, we remain “thankless and graceless.” So much for building up our self-esteem! Is that in reality a pious and rhetorical exaggeration embedded in a prayer meant to inspire genuine feeling within us, or has Saint Basil simply articulated a “hard truth” about our human nature “corrupted by sin”—to borrow yet another phrase from his magnificent prayer?
Based on experience, it is hard not to believe that Saint Basil is correct in his over-all assessment, and that he has done us a great service in reminding us of this unfortunate characteristic of our human nature. This characteristic is brought to life vividly in Luke 17:11-19, wherein we find the narrative of Christ healing ten lepers, of whom only one—a Samaritan!—thanked Him. The failure of nine lepers to return to Christ and offer thanksgiving is singled out for an unflattering comment, while the return of the Samaritan leper is singled out for open praise. Christ most certainly does not need or demand our thanksgiving! What He pointed out was for the sake of those healed and for those who witnessed the healing. Healing is meant to touch the body and the “heart,” so that the healed one’s life is totally redirected toward God. Sometimes, however, the body can be healed, but the heart left untouched. That Gospel passage is a reminder that we can fall prey to just such a temptation: to have been healed by Christ and yet to either “forget” to return to Him in thanksgiving; find other distractions more compelling; or simply to do so in outward form only. I just coincidentally read in a book about another ecclesiastical figure that the famous Western medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, wrote in his Summa Theologiae, “It is evident that every ingratitude is a sin.” That was based on the logic that since gratitude and thankfulness were virtues, their opposite must be a sin. However one may assess that “scholastic” logic, it seems to ring true.
In Father Alexander Schmemann’s classic work, For the Life of the World, we heard his unique voice recalling our initial vocation to be “eucharistic beings”—human beings who offer gratitude and thanksgiving to God in the full awareness that all things come from God and have the potential to lead us further toward God. This includes the very food that we eat on a daily basis. We can eat and drink unto ourselves, and thus eat and drink ultimately unto death. Or we can eat and drink to the glory of God, and then food becomes sacramental as a means of uniting us with God. Our heavenly Father restored the eucharistic meaning of food precisely in the Eucharist, when He gave to us the flesh and blood of the Son of Man for our lives and “for the life of the world.” The bread and wine represent all food and all life as offered up to God in a spirit of profound thanksgiving to the very Source of Life. We, in turn, receive this food back now as Holy Communion, through which we are united to Christ and have Christ dwelling within us. Father Schmemann captures this approach to life in his chapter entitled, simply, “The Eucharist:”
When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks. Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the life of paradise. Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven. But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven. He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being. He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be. (p. 38)
Indeed, we have a great deal for which to be thankful—this is a massive understatement. This does not refer to what we have, but to who we are—sinners now healed by Christ and made worthy to enter the Kingdom of God. The “leprosy” of our sin has been cleansed away. Now we need to turn back to the Source of our healing, to praise God with a loud voice, and to fall down at the feet of Jesus and give Him thanks, just like the Samaritan.