In my childhood, a shadow lay over the days after Christmas, the shadow of the thank-you letters. Until these had been written, to grandparents, godparents, uncles, aunts and family friends, we were not free for untrammelled enjoyment of our new acquisitions. I still have one contemporary and a god-child who are exemplary in writing their thanks, but it’s a practice which has very largely disappeared, at least among my friends and family. Maybe it went with the general decline in letter-writing, but it doesn’t seem to have been replaced by text, email, or even phone calls. I don’t doubt that those to whom I gave presents are, on the whole, pleased that I did so, but gratitude, it seems, is now to be assumed, not expressed.
There seems to be a parallel withdrawal from an articulated sense of gratitude within our collective church practice. Explicit thanksgiving to God is, of course, part of our liturgies; it is vocalised at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer and is the very heart of that prayer, and it is part of our post-communion response. I can’t, however, remember the last time I said in public worship any form of the General Thanksgiving, so painfully learned at school, and Common Worship has specifically omitted thanks to God from the forms of intercession. A number of our local leaders of intercessions still use the introductory form from the Alternative Service Book: ‘Let us pray for the church and the world’, they say, ‘and let us thank God for his goodness’. Nine times out of ten, however, we are drawn, often eloquently and movingly into the needs of the former, but the latter, the thanksgiving, is entirely absent. When, from time to time, we open intercessions to all comers, so that we can pray with them for whatever they wish to bring before us and before God, we rarely move from need to thanksgiving; just occasionally voices, mainly from Africa and the Caribbean, will be moved to recount and give thanks for God’s blessings.
The absence of gratitude can be seen as a healthy development within the wider culture, the growing understanding of the essential value of each human being and their corresponding entitlement to freedom, justice, education, work, family life etc. Much that was once seen as a generous gift, from those who had to those who had not, is now accepted as a matter not of grace but of right. A properly less deferential society may also be a less grateful one, and if thanks are to be offered with a tugged forelock, then there is little to mourn in their absence. Also at work is a theological change, a move away from a strongly interventionist understanding of God; if the parking place is available by chance rather than as a response to prayer, we are less inclined to offer thanks to the deity who might lie behind the chance.
But to live thankfully, and to articulate those thanks, need not indicate either deference or a god of the parking spaces. Grace said before a meal reminds us of those on whom we rely for the production and preparation of our food, it reminds us of our interconnectedness and interdependence.
‘Thank-yous’ for the presents we received at Christmas brings to our minds those who have invested time and thought and money in us, even when the investment (like so many this year) may have been misdirected into something which seems to have little intrinsic worth. Becoming conscious of occasions for gratitude prompts us to emphasise relationship rather than autonomy; gratitude demands an object outside ourselves, an other who has played some part in our lives. Practised as a habit, gratitude makes us aware of how we are linked to our neighbours and ultimately to God.
So, Pollyanna-ish as it may seem, I bid you, as you say good-bye to the Very Bad Year of 2008, and look forward to the gloom and despondency of 2009 — count your blessings!