Gratitude: A moral obligation

The Thanksgiving holiday always provides the occasion for reflection on gratitude, a virtue fundamental to loving our neighbor. We speak often of gratitude as we make our children write thank you notes for the Christmas presents that they receive and acknowledge the waiters and waitresses who bring them their food. And we make them say thank you to their teachers after a day of school. But why? Because gratitude is connected to the virtue of justice, the virtue wherein we give to others what they are due. In this case, gratitude is something that we “owe” to benefactors by way of compensating them for good things done on our behalf.

Of course, the manner in which we say thank you varies from situation to situation, relationship to relationship. Nonetheless, gratitude is necessary to express, for can we truly say that we love our neighbor if we are not grateful, nor express that gratitude, for all that they have done for us? When children rip open their Christmas presents and cast them aside without even looking the person in the eye who gave the present to them, we’re filled with tremendous embarrassment as parents because we recognize that this is a failure of love by the child. While it may not be a legal obligation that we have to be grateful, it is certainly a moral obligation. It is, as your mother may have called it, “the right thing to do.” The government may not bang down your door for failing to write a thank you card to Grandma and Grandpa for your Christmas presents, but mother certainly might!

What does this all have to do with the spiritual life? Well one of the most fundamental principles of the spiritual life is the fact that God’s grace is a gift. I have no natural right, no natural claim, to grace. Nor, frankly, am I deserving of grace in my sins. Rather, precisely because grace is a supernatural reality as a share in the Divine Triune Life, so grace is gratuitous. And as a gift, it is only appropriate that I say thank you. So the type of gratitude that we know we have a moral obligation to in our day-to-day life in loving our neighbor can certainly be seen as analogous for the gratitude that we must necessarily show each and every day of our lives for God’s grace.

We can also be certain that our Lord Himself recognizes our ingratitude, as He spoke of to St. Margaret Mary in the Sacred Heart revelations: “Behold the Heart which has so loved men that It has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify Its love; and in return, I receive from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for Me in this Sacrament of Love.” We cannot truly love neighbor without gratitude for all that they have done for us. Nor can we truly love God without gratitude for the beautiful gift of grace that He gives us!

This necessity of gratitude dramatically increases as we reach this time of the year. For not only do we have Thanksgiving to account for, but also the upcoming Christmas season shortly thereafter. And precisely because all graces come by way of Jesus Christ and His Incarnation, specifically through His Passion, death, resurrection, and ascension, so the Christmas season of celebrating the fact of God having become man is one in which gratitude must reign supreme.

Yet in order to get to this proper perspective, we need to live Advent well, the season of great preparation for the promise and expectation of the coming of the Christ child at Christmas. I invite you to listen in, then, to our new “Advent with the Director” lecture series, wherein you can spend time for the first three weeks of Advent learning about this wonderful season! Join me as we enter into the great mystery of God’s gratuitous gift of grace in Christ Jesus, through Whom we enter into the Triune Life. 

Advent with the Director
Mondays during Advent
9-10 a.m. or 7-8 p.m.
Nov. 30, Dec. 7 & 14
Registration: $35
Click here to register

Daniel Campbell is the Director of the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary Lay Division.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.