Sunday, March 10, is the First Sunday of Lent. Mass Readings: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Psalm 91:1-2, 10-15; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13.
I recently read an article in the journal Psychological Science detailing the profound impact that expressing gratitude has on one’s mental and physical health. Though the reasons for these effects are not entirely certain, the researchers who wrote the article hypothesize that expressing gratitude engages and activates parts of the brain that are involved in motivating “pro-social” (aka, kind) behaviors. In other words, expressing gratitude is a self-perpetuating behavior that also positively changes the way one thinks about and acts toward others.
This article, even if only in a limited way, illumines an important aspect of today’s readings: An essential part of a person’s relationship with God consists in giving him thanks, and this act of thanksgiving has a transformative effect on the one who undertakes it. The first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy describes a public liturgical demonstration of thanksgiving in the Temple. The people were to bring the “first of all the fruit of the ground” (Deuteronomy 26:2) before the altar and then recount the many gracious deeds God did for the people of Israel.
The offering of these first fruits was an acknowledgement that God was the true source and owner of the land’s produce, while the recounting of God’s many great deeds was a way of confessing that without God the Israelite people would never have come into being at all, let alone would they have ever inherited the land. If they were to give proper thanks, therefore, it was necessary for them to acknowledge these realities on a regular basis; by doing so, the people both demonstrated that they understood what they had received was from God and cultivated a deeper desire to thank him for it.
The second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans also, in its own way, addresses the importance of thanking God. St. Paul admonishes his audience to confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord and to believe in their hearts that God has raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9).
For Paul, much like the authors of the Old Testament, the word heart (kardia) refers to the dimension of a human person that is capable of thought and planning; thus, to believe in one’s heart is a way of describing the process of coming to know who God is and what God has done. This also means that, for Paul, the act of believing in one’s heart is not reducible to an emotional, interior response.
Rather, faith is by its very nature meant to be confessed (homologe), that is, publicly proclaimed and acknowledged in a spirit of agreement so that it has the effect of building up the faith in the whole congregation (ekklesia) of believers. Like the liturgical action described in Deuteronomy, then, Paul is calling for a public act of acknowledgement of who God is and what God has done — and this is, in fact, a way of giving thanks and praise. Further, like Deuteronomy, Paul sees the act of thanksgiving as dispositive, that is, the more one gives thanks to God, the more one wants to give thanks to God and inspires others to do so.
These readings provide us with a good starting point for the Lenten season, which is very much ordered toward our thoughtful recognition of what God has done for us: The Father sent his only Son into the world so “that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). Though sometimes we can reduce our Lenten practice to simply “giving up stuff,” it is important to remember that we are asked to engage in the threefold practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as a means of thankfully acknowledging this reality of what God has done for us by detaching from material things and seeking to know and love God more deeply.
Dominican Father Jordan Schmidt is an instructor
in sacred Scripture at the
Pontifical Faculty of the
Immaculate Conception at the
Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.