[Abba Isaac said:] The fourth kind, thanksgiving, is when the mind recollects what God has done or is doing, or looks forward to the good which he has prepared for those that love him, and so offers its gratitude in an indescribable transport of spirit. Sometimes it offers still deeper prayers of this sort; when the soul contemplates with singleness of heart the reward of the saints and so is moved in its happiness to pour forth a wordless thanksgiving.
~ Conferences of Cassian 9.14
I have already reflected on the relationship between thanksgiving and joy in the past, but since there is always more to say about every subject of the spiritual life, I will reflect on the subject yet again here. In fact, such reflection, attempts to describe “an indescribable transport of spirit,” is really the heart of true theology in the first place, I would argue. And so I pass here from the mystery of thanksgiving to an even greater, more ineffable mystery here, though not really as a true theologian in that sense, I hasten to add, but merely as one who has been inspired by many.
There is a passage from the biblical book of Nehemiah that has yet another consideration to offer:
Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel….
So [Ezra and the Levites] read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.
Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:1, 8-10)
This story takes place after the Israelites from the kingdom of Judah had just returned from living in exile in the ancient Persian empire for seventy years. According to 2 Kings, they were ultimately exiled from the promised land due to their disobedience to the Law of Moses. Thus, when Ezra reads the Law to the generation that has returned, they weep to hear read out loud all the commandments their fathers had broken, causing them to be exiled.
But this was not a day for weeping. They had done their penance, we might say. The sin for which their fathers were exiled was not their sin, and they had returned to the land in faith. Israel had passed from contrition and supplication for their sins upon hearing the Law of Moses to the exhortation of Ezra: “Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
They had returned, and unlike their fathers, they actually cared about God’s way of life. This was a special day, a holy day. This was a reason to celebrate: “eat the fat, drink the sweet”—have a party! For seventy years they had lived as second class citizens at best and slaves at worst, sometime even fearing for their lives. They had been removed from Jerusalem, from the temple of God, the center of their religion. Now they were back. Sacrifices could be offered properly again. It was as if the entire nation had contracted leprosy, declared “unclean,” and been cast out of the community, only to be miraculously healed and made clean, even holy, by the grace of God. Who could resist such joy? And who could not be strengthened by it?
In the Christian Church, the centerpiece of worship is also a sacrifice, a sacrifice of praise, to be sure, but a sacrifice nonetheless. Furthermore, this sacrifice has a special name: Eucharist—literally: thanksgiving. Jesus Christ submitted to the terror of the cross and rose victorious even over death itself, so that those who have been exiled from the presence of God might be redeemed, and like only the priest could in ancient Israel, even partake of the sacrifice: he offers, as the priest says in the Orthodox divine liturgy, “holy things for holy people.” Having been cleansed and, indeed, made holy through baptism and chrismation, Christians are invited not only to put aside all sin and sorrow but to enter into a renewed reality of joy, “an indescribable transport of spirit.”
In this we too must celebrate; every Sunday is technically a little feast day, a day of rest and celebration. As we partake, here and now, of a foretaste of the kingdom to come—deification, the communion of God with humanity and all creation—our heart “is moved in its happiness to pour forth a wordless thanksgiving,” a true and mysterious Eucharist, at home at last in the presence of God.