Imagine that you live in ancient Israel in the centuries preceding the arrival of Jesus. The time for one of the annual feasts has come, and you must make the required pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. Your destination is the temple, your purpose is worship, and your motivation stems not only from a well-established cultural norm, but from the genuine stance of thanksgiving. You leave home focused and determined; but then… the journey is long and the sun is hot, the path is unyielding, the animal that you are bringing to sacrifice is burdensome, and the caravan that you are traveling with is too noisy. Now you are frustrated, and wonder why you are headed to Jerusalem in the first place.
Now, it could very well be Toronto, October 2021. COVID restrictions have eased up, we’ve acquired a bit of a renewed appreciation for worshipping in person, and it’s the Thanksgiving weekend. But then... the alarm clock rings, you run out of coffee, the kids refuse to roll out of bed, and the pile of dishes from Saturday dinner refuses to go away by magic. We’ve all been there, and we all have wondered, “what are those reasons, again, that make going to church worth my while”?
Today, we do celebrate the Harvest Thanksgiving at Our Saviour, and so our readings, hymns, and prayers are focused on gratitude - a good reason to attend church, to be sure. Over the time of the pandemic especially, developing a sense and habit of gratitude has been touted as a way to combat isolation fatigue. Of course, this isn’t really a new and radical suggestion, for gratitude has always been a gateway to praise, and the first component of worship; i.e., of our response to being in God's presence.
E.g., today’s Ps 126 has been used to facilitate worship by both the ancient and modern Israelites, as it is still commonly recited on Shabbat and holidays. It belongs to a group of psalms (120–134) that are called the Songs of Ascents because of the superscription Shir Hama'aloth, which each one of them bears. They are brief (3-18 v.), epigrammatic, contain repeated formulaic phrases and easily remembered key-words, and they are all hopeful, even if not all necessarily cheerful. These psalms may have been sung by the pilgrims as they traveled from the countryside towards Jerusalem, located on a higher ground, to attend the three major feasts of Deut 16:16; or they may have been sung by the priests as they went up the 15 steps of the Jerusalem Temple itself -- daily, or at its its dedication in 959 BC, or at the celebration of its rebuilding in 445 BC, or during the journey back from the captivity that led to this restoration... Either way, the psalms reflect a journey: that from tragedy to redemption -- from lament to praise.
Now, even though we may detect these stand-alone groups of psalms, as well as other elements of a structure in the psalter, psalms of various types occur throughout the book. As such, the theme of joy that stems from redemption is not at all restricted to the 15 Psalms of Ascents. In fact, there’s a larger group of psalms we refer to as the Todah (Thanksgiving) Psalms, which praise God for the things he has done, and offer an emotive outpouring of worship. In some psalms, gratitude is based on an immediate experience of God’s goodness and grace, and the trust in its continuation; in others - on reflecting upon the larger salvation history. The familiar Venite and Jubilate each also have an element of reflection on God’s nature, as does psalm 148 that inspired the canticle of St Francis to which I referred last week. Some Todah psalms express individual thanksgivings (18; 30; 32; 34; 40:2-12; 41; 66:1-7; 92; 107; 116; 118; 138), and others - communal ones (66:8-12; 67; 124; 129).
But, this word, todah, which occurs in all these psalms in Hebrew, is not directly equivalent to our mere "thanks": broader than gratitude, it is an acknowledgement that God is the source of all goodness in life; that is, a theological confession, rather than simply a "thank you" for something positive. As such, when the psalter is read as a whole, thanksgiving is always the next logical step after lament. Many of the psalms, of course, stop at the mourning; but even those always conclude with the affirmation of trust that God will, one day, act. This trust finds reinforcement in the shared pattern of the todah group: starting with a thesis (recalling the plea for help and God’s intervention), delving into the detailed narration (the original problem, cry for help, and deliverance), and concluding with a cry of worship and praise. And remember, the last few psalms of the psalter as a whole each contain the word Alleluia, as a reminder to let our praise always be the last word in every conversation with God.
So, for example, 126:5-6, “MAY/LET those who sow with tears reap with shouts of joy,” contains the lament, even as it expresses hope. Notice that there’s no sugar coating and pretending that everything has always been just fine, or will always be so in the future. The important thing that is sometimes lost in our English translations is the imperative “may/let” of v.5, rather than simply a declarative “will” of v. 6.
Even our Eucharistic prayer makes it clear that our “praise and thanksgiving” is, indeed, a sacrifice -- our gift of effort to find hope in the face of lament, before we receive the redemption, restoration, or vindication for our troubles. So as I pray over the gifts today, let’s notice these words, as I have already drawn your attention to them many times prior. Let’s pay attention to how our minds and emotions respond to them.
Praise is a sacrifice - no less. Yes, a sacrifice of time, effort, getting up early, staying focused during the liturgy, living life intentionally, moment by moment. But even more so, it is the giving up even for a moment our attention to self, wants, needs, and self-importance. In return, we receive a wonderful, paradoxical gift of a greater appreciation of self and each other, for as our “specialness” begins to fade, so do our failures!
I hope that these Song of Ascents and the Todah continue to remind us about some good reasons to come and offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving here, together. I will conclude with one of my favourite quotes about praise from CS Lewis: “Praise not merely expresses, but completes the enjoyment… Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
Next time you lose sight of this amidst the Sunday morning challenges, why not compose, maybe together with your family members, your own morning song following the pattern of todah - an invitation to worship that you could use every day in your home, and/or on your weekly “pilgrimage” to church. In doing so, may you foster the sense of gratitude, and complete your delight in God’s work in your life by giving him the due praise, and sharing it with others. Thanks be to God.