In the months of November and December we are inundated with messages of ‘giving thanks’ and ‘spreading Christmas cheer.’ While nice sentiments on the surface, they all point towards one thing: consuming. To prepare for Christmas, we are told we need to start shopping as early as October 1st to get the perfect gift. We are encouraged to wait in line on black Friday for that one-time-only sale. On Thanksgiving, we are shown images of tables overflowing with food and the latest decorations to give the day ‘that holiday feel.’ These messages come through the medium of commercials, targeted Instagram advertisements, Hallmark movies, and signs on the side of the highway. It’s easy to get caught up in the consumerist mentality of the holiday season and feel like these are the markers we need to meet in order to participate in and prepare for the joy of Christmas. I have certainly been guilty of that at points in my life!
And yet, when I look to the Church for how to prepare for Christmas, the great Feast of the Incarnation of Christ, I hear very different messages. Instead of consuming and indulging, we are called to abstain through fasting, to empty ourselves so that we may increase our prayer life, and to give as we have received. And what have we received? LIFE and life abundantly! As we heard in the Epistle this past Sunday, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” Ephesians 2:4-5). It was out of love, that God created us and gave us His only begotten Son so that we may learn to love as He loved. As Orthodox Christians, the season of advent leads us to the humble beginnings of the birth of our Lord and Savior, whose mother gave up her own will to allow the will of God to be made manifest.
In contrast to the messages of consumerism, when we inundate our hearts with the messages the Church provides us during this season, the natural response becomes: how can I “praise the Lord, exalting him evermore” (1st Canon of the Nativity) and consider more deeply what I can do to offer that love back to God and my neighbor.
So what can we do to offer that love?
To me, it begins with cultivating a heart for service. And how do we do that? First and foremost, we immerse ourselves in the life of the Church, the word of the Lord, and become intimately familiar with the ways in which Christ served. Christ’s service on earth was radical acts of love where he broke societal norms and boundaries to heal the wounds of others and enter into the sufferings of those most ostracized. His life was a life of service and that is what we are called to cultivate–a life of service that is rooted in the love of Christ.
This is not something that happens overnight. It happens in the small ways in which we intentionally choose to switch our attention from ways we can consume to ways we can give out of our abundance for the sake of the other and out of love for God. This season, consider: what is one thing you could do, however small, to cultivate a heart for service?
If you are someone who is yearning to cultivate a heart for service and feels a desire to serve in a radical way, I invite you to consider looking into the newest ministry of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops—Orthodox Volunteer Corps (OVC). The mission of OVC is to ignite and equip Orthodox young adults to catalyze transformative service for the Church and world. Through an immersive 10-month experience, young adults will live in solidarity with the most vulnerable, learn to embody justice and mercy, and give of their head, hearts, and hands in service. Corps Members will work four days a week at a local nonprofit, live in community with other Orthodox young adults, participate in faith and leadership formation seminars, and immerse themselves in the life of the Church. If you are between the ages of 21-29 and you feel called to a life of service, we encourage you to begin that process by applying to OVC! Applications are due February 15, 2022 and you can apply online here: https://orthodoxvolunteercorps.org/
Director of Strategic Growth for CrossRoad Institute and Chair of the Orthodox Volunteer Corps Advisory Council
Kyra Limberakis received her bachelor’s degree from Villanova University and her Master of Theological Studies from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry where she focused her studies on youth and young adult ministry and the ministry of women in the church. Kyra’s experience in youth work spans 10+ years and includes serving as staff for her metropolis camp, Ionian Village, Orthodox Christian Fellowship, and CrossRoad—all programs that were part of her own faith formation. As a college student, she participated in OCF’s College Conference and Real Break programs and later on served as the Real Break Thessaloniki lay leader in 2018 and 2019. She will be a workshop speaker at this year’s College Conference East.
We are now in the wake of Thanksgiving, #GivingTuesday, and coursing through the Advent season. Gratitude is a theme that presents itself during this season and its an important quality to have to grow in humility. We Christians are not only ‘thankful’ in an ethereal sense but we are thankful to God. We owe Him everything from the beat in our hearts to the earth we live on.
Where do I start with being thankful to God? The first thing that popped into my head, and now is completely stuck in my head, is Psalm 135 (136), otherwise known as the Polyeleos. It is a beautiful hymn that describes how we can be thankful to God and glorify creation.
You can listen to it here:
If you listen to the lyrics, you can hear King David writing about the thankfulness and gratitude seen in the beauty of God’s creation. But the repeating reason for gratitude? “His mercy endures forever.” What does this mean? It means we can be happy and excited that God gives us an opportunity each and every day to get up, repent, and resist sin. It means that every day we get to wake up with the choice to grow closer to God. It means that we live in a reality where our God loves us with His entire being and the extent of His mercy cannot be known. It means that God has sent His ACTUAL SON to die for us on the cross and in His mercy, redeem us and return us to our fully human state in His presence. His mercy endures forever and ever and unto the ages of ages, so let that sink in, and in turn show your gratitude to God and His creation by giving thanks in the blessings and tribulations you receive each and every day.
This week, I asked the other members of the Student Leadership board to tell me what they are thankful to God for in their lives, these are the replies they sent me:
I’m thankful for the regional and district events that have made my university’s OCF so incredibly close this year in comparison to last year. Without them, members in my OCF would never have been able to see what OCF is, means, and stands for. It inspired our chapter to embody the things we experienced and has given me some of my closest friends at school.
Kristina Anastasiadis, Northeast Student Leader
I’m thankful for my family and friends who challenge me everyday to grow in my faith.
Caroline Retzios, Great Lakes Student Leader
I am thankful for my OCF Real Break trip to Thessaloniki, Greece. My experiences on the trip helped deepen my faith and my relationship with the Lord. Additionally, it provided me the opportunity to meet many extraordinary Christ like individuals who truly changed my life!
Elizabeth Buck, South Student Leader
I’m thankful for Orthodoxy in college. It’s kept me grounded and made me realize what’s most important at all times, and I’m thankful for cows.
Amelia Barron, Midwest Student Leader
I’m thankful for the continual challenges God blesses me with every day, as they have helped me grow in so many ways.
Alex Lountzis, Southeast Student Leader
I’m thankful for the peace felt after receiving confession and the reconciliation I always feel with Christ afterwards. 🙂
+ Alex(^) and the entire SLB
Eva Tempenis, Media Student Leader
I am thankful for everyone around me encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone and leading me to new experiences and adventures in life.
Quinn Marquardt, Mountain Student Leader
I am thankful to God for showing my the path to Orthodoxy in college!
Zoe Kanakis, Southwest Student Leader
The SLB has numerous things to be grateful to God. Reflect on what you are grateful for, and say THANK YOU. God and His people need to be thanked for all that they do.
As college students, we have a lot to be thankful for. We are thankful for our family, our friends, our home. A lot of times, we are thankful for simple things like the free food on campus or the email from our professor canceling our 8 a.m. class. I don’t know about everyone else, but every time one of those small things occur to me, I think to myself, “Thank God” and then continue on eating my free pizza or roll back into bed.
But let me tell you something I never do.
I don’t wake up for my 8 a.m. classes and say, “Thank God.” I also don’t utter those words when I use the money that I have to pay for my meal. I usually don’t remember to thank Him at all. Why is that?
Well, as a society, we have a small problem. We love to express our thankfulness to God when things are going well in our lives. But, when everything is just average or going poorly, we forget about God and even question his intentions. Instead of thanking God constantly for what He has given us, we question why He has given us struggles in our lives.
As the Thanksgiving season has come and gone, we have to ask ourselves, how can we work towards being thankful to God every day, no matter what is occurring in our lives? Even if we do not realize it, we do give thanks to God in many ways throughout our daily and spiritual lives.
Did you know that we can give thanks to God by receiving Holy Communion? The word “thanksgiving” translates to Eucharistia in Greek. In turn, the word Eucharist is used in the Orthodox Church to describe the act of the Orthodox faithful receiving the consecrated body and blood of Christ, otherwise known as the sacrament of Holy Communion.
St. John Chrysostom teaches us that one way to be thankful to God is to participate in the Eucharist consistently. He states that “the dread Mysteries, full of such great salvation, which are celebrated at every Liturgy, are also called a Thanksgiving [Eucharistia] because they are the remembrance of many benefits…and in every way cause us to be thankful to Him.” By receiving Holy Communion, we are not only bringing Christ into our lives, we are thanking Christ for giving us life and the hope for the resurrection by remembering what He sacrificed for us all.
St. John Chrysostom also states:
Whenever we are either in poverty, or in sickness, or are being insulted, then let us intensify our thanksgiving; thanksgiving, I mean, not in words, nor with the tongue, but in deeds and works, in mind and in heart; let us give thanks to Him with all our souls.
Here, he gives us new meaning to how we as Orthodox Christians can practice thanksgiving in our lives. He encourages all of us to give thanks to God with our entire soul. According to him, to achieve this we must focus on not only offering our thanksgiving to God with our prayers, but with our acts towards others.
One of my favorite verses from the Bible comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I never really thought about how I could incorporate the message of this verse in my everyday life until about a year ago.
In the summer of 2017, I was given an opportunity to travel to Rosarito, Mexico and spend a week working on building a home for the Ramirez family with Project Mexico. While building the home for the Ramirez family, we all saw how much they rejoiced with us every minute of the day with their radiant smiles and loving hospitality towards us.
We saw their love for Christ when they welcomed us into their home and made a group of thirty missionaries homemade meals every day, even though they barely had money to make ends meet. They were thankful for everything that they had, even though they had very little.
My greatest takeaway from this trip was not that I built a home for a family in need, but that I was able to learn from the Ramirez family what it means to rejoice always and give thanks for everything every single day.
This is why, I believe, St. John Chrysostom states that by helping others, we can and will be able to open our hearts and be able to learn how to be thankful to God with all our souls. Christ gives us many opportunities to give thanks to Him daily in different forms, either through Holy Communion or through good acts towards others. We just have to work on acting on those opportunities given to us by Christ so we can remember to give thanks to him daily and not just one month of the year.
Hi everyone! My name is Joanna Psyhogios. I am from Wilmette, Illinois and I am a member at St. John the Baptist Church in Des Plaines Illinois. My first experience with OCF was during College Conference East and I have been active in participating in College Conference and OCF Retreats ever since. In my free time, I love to play and watch every sport, coach basketball to youth teams, watch movies and TV Shows, and play Jungle Speed (Shoutout to CC Midwest!). I am really excited to share what I have learned about the Orthodox faith through the OCF blogs!
Most often, I am truly thankful when I am not trying to be. There’s a sensation of gratitude overflowing in the soul when an unexpected blessing comes my way or when I happen to avoid an accident by some providential circumstance.
But when set occasions for thankfulness come around, such as the Eucharist or this holiday we call Thanksgiving, I find it difficult to replicate sincere gratitude which comes unexpectedly. Sure, I can always afford a few moments to say the prayer before devouring an inordinate amount of food on Thanksgiving. But deep down, I am painfully aware that this is not the same thankfulness that brings tears to my eyes after moments of crisis. It feels artificial, wrong even. Aware as I am of the fact that I am privileged beyond belief, there is no pain in my heart for those who are not. Tragically, I simply accept it as the reality and carry on, offering my lip service as though it is the best I have.
But this is not enough.
This is merely Cain’s offering, and we should strive to be like Abel, offering the best of ourselves to God. We are human beings endowed with spiritual faculties, not just lips. We were made for thanksgiving, as we are instructed in the holy Scriptures to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18).
As Christians, we ought to approach this American holiday not as an occasion to be proud of the relative prosperity we enjoy in this country but as a call to aspire to the state of humility, love, and thanksgiving which Christ intends for us to exist in perpetually.
So what do we do when we find ourselves stuck in this thanklessness? How can we get ourselves out? Perhaps what makes this state of thanklessness so frustrating is exactly the point: we cannot get ourselves out. There is no thanksgiving without love, and love is a gift. We do not “think” love into existence whenever we happen to have a need for it. In order to be thankful, we must accept the gift of love from Christ who is Love. If our hearts are closed to this gift, we will have nothing to offer God when we attempt to give thanks.
This realization highlights two important details about thanksgiving. The first is that thanksgiving is not merely gratitude for the opportunity to consume large quantities of material possessions. St. Basil the Great reminds us that our material excess does not belong to us at all:
The bread you are holding back belongs to the hungry; the coat you guard in your locked storage-boxes belongs to the naked; the shoes wasting away in your closet belong to those who have no shoes. The silver you hide in safekeeping belongs to the needy one.
Should we find ourselves in a state of material abundance, it is important that we understand God’s gift of love is revealed in part through His provision for our needs, and with excess comes the responsibility and the opportunity to participate fully in His gift of love through giving. Mercy is itself an active part of thanksgiving.
The second detail is that in contemplating Christ’s gift of love for us, we understand that like love, thanksgiving has both a subject and an object. Almost every religion values gratitude in some way. Even secular self-help literature tells us of the psychological benefits of practicing gratitude in meditation. This is not a bad thing per se, but I wonder: just who are we to be thankful to? We cannot be thankful for without someone to be thankful to. As Christians, we do not offer up our thanksgiving to some impersonal abstraction of causality, but to a person, Christ.
So let’s remember when we come to the table this Thanksgiving and bow our heads to pray: thanksgiving is not a mere obligation but a perpetual state of being to which we have been called, made possible by love of our Christ our God, who has brought us out of non-being into existence and provides for our needs so that we may continue to exist, always commending ourselves and our whole life to Him.
Hello! I’m Daniel Bishop, and I’m an Orthodox Christian and a contributing blogger for OCF. I study English at the University of Dallas, and I’m involved with youth and young adult ministries in my parish, my OCF chapter, and my local pan-Orthodox community. I enjoy studying classical languages and literature, playing music, traveling, rock climbing, and chanting. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or comments.