By Fr. Glenn Jones:
I was watching “Saving Private Ryan” the other day—a movie which has become known as one of the best cinematic portrayals of war and combat. It is a tale of a small unit of Army Rangers sent to retrieve the surviving son—Private Ryan—of a family of four sons, this one in an Airborne unit behind enemy lines in D-Day Normandy, France. While successful in finding and saving Ryan, those Rangers are ultimately almost all killed in combat as a consequence. At the end of the movie, the scene fast-forwards to the now elderly Ryan visiting the military cemetery in France in which the leader of the unit is interred.
Ryan gazes over the manicured lawn and hundreds of marble crosses standing in perfect formation, he having come to pay tribute to the commander of the Rangers at the foot of that hero’s grave. That scene of the many cross-marked graves never fails to move the viewer with deepest emotion, in remembrance that all of those men and women—a tiny percentage of all that did, and have, done so around the world—sacrificed their lives in the cause of freedom. One recognizes Ryan’s pilgrimage to his rescuer’s final resting place is most fitting and eloquent acknowledgment of the unit’s sacrifice and a gesture of true thanks.
And yet … unlike Ryan, time and ease can make us forget the good that we may have been given; as scripture warns: “In the day of prosperity, adversity is forgotten, and in the day of adversity, prosperity is not remembered.” (Sirach 11:25) So many who have gone before us—parents, grandparents, family, and many in our communities—have sacrificed so very much to give what they could so that we in future generations might have what we have. No, they were not perfect, but news flash, sport: neither are you! Scripture reminds us: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money; nor he who loves wealth, with gain” (Ecclesiastes 5:10), which might easily be expanded to apply to prosperity and ease as well, especially that for which we have received with little or no effort—that which is simply inherited and taken for granted because it has always been present, available or certain. Worse yet, many complain about what they have effortlessly received (trust me; I’ve dealt with many families fighting one another for inheritance)—that it is not enough and they should have been provided more. Such ingratitude is one of the unkindest cuts of all to a generous soul.
An example of gross ingratitude is in the Exodus story of the Bible. Through God’s power, Moses leads the Israelites from centuries of slavery into freedom, and yet still they complain almost incessantly. Given so much, it was never enough, and they often quickly forgot their former condition. Some in arrogance (Korah (Numbers 16), and even Moses’ own siblings (Numbers 12)) try to elevate themselves to positions equal to God’s chosen man; THAT sure doesn’t end well! But perhaps one of the best examples of ingratitude comes from the very beginning … from the Garden of Eden story in which Adam and Eve are given paradise with only a single restriction, and yet even paradise is not enough. Deceived by the serpent, they desire even more, and in the process of exercising prideful and ungrateful greed, lose it all. Yeah, thanks loads for that, A&E (eye roll emoji).
And yet, as the Easter Vigil Mass Exultet proclaims: “O happy fault, that earned for us so great a Redeemer!” The whole Easter season is one centered on Christian remembrance and gratitude—gratefulness for the gift of eternal life offered to us on a silver platter, with only comparatively miniscule effort required to inherit. Christ gave Himself up on the cross solely for our sake—redemption of sins—and then resurrected from the dead solely for our sake—for our justification, offering to us inheritance—the treasure of treasures—of eternal life with God for His faithful. No matter what hardship or tragedy happens to us in life, that offered inheritance is never withdrawn from those faithful to Him.
But like ungrateful spoiled children, we can reject what our divine Parent offers. We are often like the churches in Revelation 2 & 3, which started walking well the path of Jesus, but the passage of time made some forget their ardor and they began falling away. But like the prodigal son’s father, God never rejects us; rather He is always waiting … looking … for us to come home to Him. Again I quote a favorite verse: “As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live…” (Ezekiel 33:11) And we remember Jesus’ words even to the repentant thief crucified beside Him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) The inheritance is already won; we remain with God to receive it.
So let us never fail in gratitude—to parents, to those who have sacrificed for us, to those who have helped provide the blessings given us, and most of all to God; to fail to give thanks is ignoble at best. Sure, there’s always more we can do; there always will be. But perhaps we give thanks and honor legacies most of all by working to build upon what has already been constructed as best we can—loving God, loving neighbor—and cultivating the tree so that it continues to grow and to bear good fruit for the future, and for eternity.
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.