This reflection for the Sunday after Christmas draws particularly on Colossians 3.12-17, the lectionary epistle. It is written by Revd Helen Marshall who has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain, retreat leader and spiritual director in the UK, taught in a theological college in Kenya, and has recently moved to Geneva where her husband is working for the World Council of Churches.
As a variation on the ‘new year resolution’, the church where I served my curacy chose a phrase from Scripture as its ‘motto’ for each new year. As we approach 2019 perhaps we might benefit from pondering three words from our New Testament reading this Sunday: ‘and be thankful’.
The Colossians are urged to ‘be thankful’ and to live with ‘gratitude’ for all they have received from God. Gratitude is not a common human commodity. We more often meet the opposite, both in ourselves and others. Ingratitude – grumbling, being negative, feeling we’ve not got what we deserve – these seem to be deeply engraved attitudes in us all. It’s so easy to get into the habit of complaining; sometimes we even fail to see the good gifts that are right in front of us. The Russian novelist Dostoevsky once described human beings as the ‘ungrateful biped’!
We may all know people who are rarely grateful for anything, those whose prevailing response to life is critical and negative; they always seem to be complaining about something or other. It can be quite exhausting to be in such a person’s company for long. On the other hand, it’s refreshing and upbuilding to meet someone who is deeply and genuinely grateful.
Gratitude is an essential part of the Christian life; our response to God’s grace in Christ. It’s rather like two sides of a coin: God’s attitude to us may be summarised in the one word ‘grace’; and our response to him summarised in the one word ‘gratitude’.
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians he describes the kind of lives they should live in response to God. Knowing they are ‘beloved’, they are to be compassionate, tolerant, kind, humble, gentle and forgiving towards one another. But they are also urged to be thankful to God: ‘be thankful…sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts…whatever you do, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father…’ Gratitude is to colour the whole of their lives and the whole of our lives too. As one writer puts it, we are called to ‘thanksliving’.
Thankfulness towards God and forbearance and patience with other people are linked together. If we have received God’s grace deeply into our lives and are full of gratitude and thankfulness, this will go a long way in enabling us to be patient and forgiving towards others. While we are deeply grateful to God for his love and his gifts to us, we won’t be constantly comparing ourselves to others.
Many of our chaplaincies in Europe are very diverse communities, with people from a variety of nationalities, backgrounds and cultures. This can sometimes be a source of misunderstanding and division; there is an even greater need for patience, gentleness and humility among us. But if we can remember that we are all ‘beloved’ (even those we may find most difficult) and ‘be thankful’ both for God’s love and for one another, this will help us to live with more grace and patience and, indeed, to see our diverse communities as a rich blessing.
Of course, sometimes it is extremely difficult to ‘be thankful’; we may face intense personal suffering or family difficulties; we may be anxious and disillusioned about what is happening in our world, or even in our churches. Yet, God’s grace in Christ remains the same.
So let us approach this new year with the confidence that we are ‘beloved’ and therefore ‘be thankful.’
A prayer: Holy God, may the love you pour out upon us take root deep in our hearts, bear fruit in our lives and keep us in thanksgiving and praise of your holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.