October 14, 2007
There would be many advantages to St. Noel parish if it had a younger pastor. He would have more energy. He would be more in touch with the cultural issues of teens and young adults. He would probably be willing to take more risks. There would be many advantages. But as it is, you’re stuck with me. That is not all bad. I can think of at least one advantage of having a pastor pushing sixty. He would be able to understand some of the issues that face people in the later stages of life, and he would be able to interpret to those issues in light of the gospel. This is what I would like to do today. So I apologize up front to all the teenagers and young adults, if the issues we discuss today are not your issues. Although I do believe that if you listen, you might find something of value. And I certainly believe that these issues will become more relevant, as you live another twenty, or thirty, or sixty years.
There are challenges to every period of life, but the challenges and the issues that face us in our sixties and seventies and eighties are particularly weighty. It seems that life is back-loaded with troubles.
As we approach sixty we begin to worry about our health. We used to face regular medical check-ups with ease. But now, as those dates approach, there is an increase in anxiety. We know that sooner or later the tests will not be good, and there will be issues which must be addressed. As we get older we must learn to say goodbye. We lose the people we love in death. It might start with an associate, someone our own age or younger, but we know that in time it will touch a spouse or a friend on whom our life depends. As we approach these later decades of life, time changes. We begin to realize that our time is limited. When we purchase a new car, we ask ourselves, “How many more times will I do this?” As we leave on vacation, we wonder, “Will I be able to travel in the future?” Even at holiday time, we begin to look forward. How many more Christmases will I celebrate? As we hit our sixties, the horizons of our life begin to shrink, and we can see on those horizons troubles which we know we will soon have to face.
Now clearly there are troubles at every stage of life. But troubles are different in your twenties and thirties. In those years, you face a crisis, push through it, and move on. You move through that difficult job, that economic downturn, that broken ankle. You get back to life as normal. In those years, normal life is a life with infinite horizons. There are no clouds in the sky. As you hit your sixties, the horizons begin to shrink. You realize that even as you deal with one particular trouble, there is another one waiting in the wings. You will soon cope with a death of a parent, the return of your cancer, the diminishing energy and enthusiasm which old age brings. You realize that this is the way that life is going to be from now on. You will not go back to those days when the horizon was infinite and there were no troubles to be seen. You must find a new kind of normal. Now, of course, there will always be new and exciting experiences. But as we age, our options shrink, and we realize that the cards we already hold are the hand we will need to play.
So how do we cope with these shrinking horizons? How do we live this new kind of normal? Only with thankfulness! In today’s gospel, Jesus criticizes the nine lepers who do not return to give thanks. He criticizes them not because he is personally offended or petty. He criticizes them because he knows that the only foundation to a joyful life is thankfulness. Unless we are thankful, we cannot be happy. Therefore we must be thankful in every circumstance and every period of life.
We can be thankful in every period of life, but we must realize that thankfulness changes as we grow older. When we are young, thankfulness is pure and immediate. We push through a problem and return to normal life with an infinite horizon and a blue sky. In later life, the clouds come in and the horizons shrink. Yet, even then, we can be thankful as long as we realize that thankfulness is different. In our later years, thankfulness is not so much a response as it is a choice. A choice to be thankful for the good things we have today.
I can choose to be thankful because today I have no pain, even though tomorrow might be different. I can choose to be thankful because today I can share a meal with the people I love, even though I will not have them forever. I can choose to be thankful because today I can share wisdom with a young person, even though I know I might not live to see that wisdom reach its fruition.
We cannot be joyful without being thankful. And we can be thankful even with clouds on the horizon. Our faith can help us here, because we believe that in every period of life God will continue to bless us, even as our horizons shrink. Being thankful in our later years is different than being thankful when we are young. But it is real thankfulness, and it can still bring real joy. In our faith we are confident that we can remain thankful people in our seventies, and eighties and nineties. We can remain thankful people to the end of our lives, because with God’s help we can choose thankfulness. We can identify with the Samaritan in today’s gospel. We can raise our voices and shout, “I give thanks to God because God has done great things for me!”