Trinity XIII 2019
The Reverend Beau McLaurin Davis, Sr.
“...if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.”
I was once told that every gift merited a “thank you” note. I did not grow up with that standard. My poor family had tuxedos and tailcoats rotting in the closets, but I was never taught to write and mail a letter for every present. This is a noble sentiment, but fawning and appreciation over a present was what I was taught. If you are given a gift, it took effort and money from that person to bestow that honor upon you (no matter the size). The greater the weight of the gift, the more you should go on about it. If someone who is drowning in cash gives you $100, then thank them and go on with life. However, if someone with much less gives you a gift (which might otherwise be mundane), then you should proportionally be thankful for it. Even moreso, if your worthiness of a gift is disproportionate; then you should show even greater appreciation. When I graduated from seminary, my wealthy biological father gave me a watch worth $2000. It was a lovely gift which he had received from his second wife’s father (of 3), which he had passed on to me. While it is a pretty bauble, the gift meant nothing to him, and even less to me. My dad’s parents (my stepfather’s parents) gave me some UGA shorts, a UGA shirt, and a UGA cup. They had been hard up for years because of their business going under in a major construction recession. At 22 years old, they would still send me $5 checks for my birthday which they could barely afford, so their three personal presents meant so much more to me. The watch merited a “thanks” and nothing more, but I felt I owed my grandparents continuous appreciation for what they had done, and I still appreciate it long after they have gone. The watch has been worn once or twice in the past 11 years, but the shorts, shirt, and cup have been used past any recognizing what they were to begin with. There is no “G” remaining on the clothes, and the emblem in the cup has been obscured by being well loved, but these three seemingly simple things are still treasured by me. To the outsider they are paltry; but in actuality, they are priceless.
To the uninitiated, our worship service here would seem equally as insignificant. On a Sunday, we sing 5 songs (mediocrely on the part of some of us), say a few prayers, read a couple of sections of scripture, hear something about the faith explained for a few minutes, and then have a small snack. If you look at the ceremonies instituted by Christ for us to receive God’s grace (the sacraments), their performance is (by all outward appearances) simple: washing and a snack of easy-to-find stuff. Compare that to other religions. In Judaism, initiation consists of bodily mutilation, and salvation is gained through adherence to 613 Commandments. You join Islam simply through speaking a sentence called the Shahada; but then yearly you have to tithe 23% of everything you own, and at some point in your life you have to make a trip to Mecca. A single worship service (puja) to Hindu gods can cost over a thousand dollars. The value of what we as a congregation consume on any given Sunday morning is probably $4. What is conferred in that $4 gift is something infinitely valuable: a priceless present from paltry material; given with the power to grant eternal life by him who created the universe.
With this in mind, it should be no shock that we spend the complete end of our service in thanksgiving for the ultimate gift which we had just received. After the reception of Holy Communion, every one of us is supposed to enter into secret (that is, private) prayers. While there aren’t any post-communion devotions in the Prayer Book, any prayer of thanksgiving which you offer up in sincerity would suffice. In many parishes, there is a Communion Hymn sung (while kneeling) as a joint prayer from the congregation. In a Low Mass, there is opportunity for quiet, private reflection after Communion.
Unique to Anglicanism, this prayerful, private, introspective moment in Communion is immediately followed by the Great Thanksgiving. Whereas the traditional Roman Rite ended immediately following reception of Communion and Benediction, the 1549 Prayer Book added this comprehensive thanksgiving prayer to the post communion to give us the opportunity to reflect. We acknowledge that we have just fed upon Christ’s Body and Blood, and that we are assured God’s Grace thereby. Through it, we and all faithful people become one with Christ, who alone is the inheritor of everlasting life. We do not gain eternity because we have merely been forgiven, and we do not join in immortality because we know Christ is who he is: we inherit it because we become one (both in body through our consumption, as well as our soul through faith) with Christ. Furthermore, in the Great Thanksgiving we ask God to prevent us from sin and wandering, and to guide us through that same unity with his Son: ultimately to return to him again and again (i.e. frequently) in the Most Blessed Sacrament.
The Gloria in Excelsis is always thanksgiving in nature, but the tone changes in placement. After the Kyrie, it is an upswing from pure penitence into a song of appreciation in light of our inadequacies. When it is included at the end of the Communion, it is done in order to exemplify our thanks by including this ancient hymn of praise. It is thus a song of pure joy. This is why we do not sing the Gloria in penitential seasons: it would be a joyful noise in a time of reflection on our sorrows.
The thanksgivings conclude with the post-communion collects, which echo the intentions of those at the beginning, but with the theme transitioned to the benefits gained through our meeting Christ at the altar. In them, we usually acknowledge that even though we have done so much to live contrary to God (his law, commandment, and love), God has seen fit to forgive us through his Son via his Sacraments. In the Epistle reading from today, Saint Paul asks, “Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make man live, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” That is, if the Law were of no consequence at all, then what would we ever need forgiveness from? While it was eternally God’s plan to redeem the world through his Son, that doesn’t make his Law amusing nonsense to keep humanity busy until the 1st Century. “But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” The Law is the binding Covenant -impossible to fulfil to perfection- which by which the sentence for the slightest violation is death. Through this gift which we have just received (something from all outward appearances means nothing), the violation of those all-encompassing Laws are washed away. Therein lies the true purpose of thanksgiving.