Bishop: Imported and Exported Thanksgiving

by Bishop Joensen | November 14, 2022

Bishop William Joensen

Many years ago, I offered regular sacramental help at a set of five rural churches where the Mass wine was produced and donated by a local winery.  Previously, thanks to the leadership of the LaSalle Christian Brother who was their administrator, five parishes were merged into one parish that kept the five church sites open, but with a new name reflecting their appreciation for their beloved brother in Christ: St. John Baptist de La Salle. 

The parishioners were generally people of deep faith:  they loved receiving Jesus present in the Eucharist, and they were grateful to God and to the priests and ministers who offered them this precious gift. They were also thankful for the generous gesture of the vineyard owners for providing the special blend of wine that bore the “LaSalle” name of their parish cluster that had been transformed into one Body of Christ.

But over time, many folks also cultivated a taste for the sweet red wine itself, even as they knew it had been miraculously transformed into the Body and Blood Christ. They implored the vineyard owners to make the wine available for sale in local grocery and convenience stores, which they did. Many a table in the region was graced by the appearance of a bottle of LaSalle wine—which, depending on one’s palate and preference for either sweet or dry wine, was either a good or not-so-appealing thing.

The celebration of the Mass contains many layers of mystery and meaning. At the heart of it, the word ‘Eucharist’ itself means ‘thanksgiving’, and there are different dimensions of thanksgiving in play: the thanksgiving of Jesus as he blesses the bread and the cup at the Last Supper and presents them to his heavenly Father as a pleasing offering. Though he knows it will entail unfathomable suffering and the ultimate gift of his own life, he is grateful for the mission the Father has entrusted to him. And he is thankful for the disciples who have heeded his call to follow him and join his intimate company around the table become altar—then, and now.  As Pope Francis commented in his reflection upon Jesus’ desire to celebrate the Last Supper, on that sacred evening he anticipates every celebration of the Eucharist that will take place until the end of time. He longs for hungry and thirsty souls who recognize and receive him who alone satisfies the deepest longing of our hearts for love, for a sense of belonging, for a reason to be grateful no matter what struggles, setbacks, and suffering we presently confront in our own lives.

The Eucharist reveals a God who knows us and provides us with the most profound yet accessible means to join with Jesus in giving thanks to God. We thank the Father for giving us his only Son, who comes to save rather than condemn, and who reconciles and restores us to unity with one another—especially in a culture that preys upon polar antagonism and division.  We thank God for our very lives, for our faith, and, if we are so blessed, for the labor we perform by the sweat of our brow, along with the use of our minds and creative talents. We are grateful for our vocations, which are personal responses to God’s love and the means by which we, too, lay down our lives with the fidelity that God’s grace makes possible. 

One of the things I love about the Mass (and the attending opportunity for Eucharistic Adoration) is that I don’t have to be totally original and creative in expressing the thanks that wells up within me. Further, the celebration of Mass helps “convert” my sometimes less-than-grateful attitude into an encounter between God and myself that itself is a blessing.  Mutual presence, even if marked by aching grief, unrequited earthly desires for justice, for healing of people I care about, distraction, listlessness or fatigue, is still a valid form of communion between God and his beloved sons and daughters. The words of Holy Scripture and the ritual prayers of the Mass are a library of love, a treasury of gestures and “table conversation” that bears the whole grain flavor of experience. 

On a daily basis, God allows us to negotiate a cluster of concerns and commitments that press and squeeze us at times, but that inevitably produce more Spirit “juice” and fruit than we would harvest solely by our own initiative and efforts. We never start from scratch; God has anticipated our every need and consecrates the various “matters” we lay before him on the altar of the Church, the altar of our hearts.  As the priest prays either silently or out loud: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you. . . the wine we offer you: fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink.” 

All of us can exercise our baptismal priesthood and make the words of the Psalmist our own: 

You make the grass grow for the cattle

 and plants to serve mankind’s need.

 That he may bring forth bread from the earth

 and wine to cheer the heart;

 oil, to make faces shine,

 and bread to strengthen the heart of man (Psalm 104:14-15).

The good members of the LaSalle Parish in effect wanted to “export” their Mass wine into their homes and lives at large. Yes, the focus of their attention and their tastes may have blurred the lines between the sacramental and the naturally sensible, the mystical and the mundane. However, I do not want to criticize them but to commend us all to make our experience of Eucharistic worship and our consciousness of God’s gracious accompaniment through all our daily lives a more seamless affair. We develop the “taste buds” that stir both sweet joy when things go well, and acceptance and trust in the dry times that pervade prayer, work, and family and friendships. We cultivate a habit of gratitude and praise of God that flows both ways through the doors of our parish and our homes, our pastures and our places of study and employment. 

We are inclined to greater generosity to our fellow citizens who find themselves in the sorry “food deserts” that are ever more prevalent in our country, because we recognize how frequently others have supplied the means and stuff that we then make our own, just like those vineyard owners donated the grape wine that Jesus Christ transforms into himself. We become a people known for the spirit of Thanksgiving that not only stirs us to participate in the most religious of all our national holidays on the fourth Thursday of November; it draws us into communities of mutual presence and self-giving. We are moved to worship and work, to celebrate and sacrifice, because we have a God who loves to give thanks for us and with us, day after day, until the end of time.

Bishop Joensen

The Most Reverend William Joensen is the current bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines, having been ordained and installed in 2019.