In 1994, on one of the coldest days on record in Wisconsin history, my younger brother Andy was born. He was born with a rare chromosomal abnormality called Mosaic Trisomy 8. People often ask what this means. The best way to explain it is to compare it with Down Syndrome. If you have Down Syndrome, also known as Trisomy 21, each of your cells have three copies of the twenty-first chromosome, instead of the normal two. If you have Mosaic Trisomy 8, some of your cells have three copies of the eighth chromosome, some of your cells have the normal two. So, your body is a “mosaic” of different kinds of cells. That’s what my brother Andy has. It’s extremely rare, and it brings with it a whole host of physical and mental disabilities. When he was born, the doctors didn’t know if he’d live. And even if he did live, they never expected him to be able to breathe on his own, eat on his own, or walk on his own. Of course, he now does all of this and more. He’s surpassed every expectation.
Andy has been a real gift for my family. He’s brought us a lot of joy over the years and he’s taught us a lot. He’s taught us about the dignity of every human life, even one that will never reach the heights of intelligence, physical ability, or productivity that the world values and idolizes. He’s taught us perspective. Ten minutes with Andy is enough to be reminded of what really matters in life. And he’s taught us how to love and sacrifice. I know my older brother, Fr. John, would not be a priest today without my brother Andy, and I doubt that I would be a priest as well. All my siblings can point to significant ways in which Andy has influenced our lives. He’s been a real gift to us, and he continues to be one.
Raising and growing up with Andy was also challenging at times. He was in the hospital for the first thirteen months of his life. And even when he eventually came home, he needed constant medical attention. I think all of us wondered at times why God had brought Andy into our lives. I think all of us wondered why God had allowed this to happen. Why us? Why me? It was easy to compare our family situation with others’. And it was easy to become envious. It was easy to become like the laborers in our gospel who were hired at the beginning of the day, but got paid the same as those hired later in the day. Why did we get paid this, and they got paid that? They’re not smarter than us, they’re not harder working than us, they’re not holier than us. So why did it end up this way? Why were we dealt this hand in life? Why? Why? Why?
When God allows something like this to happen to us, when we’re dealt a difficult hand, when we’re not paid what we think we’re owed in life, we often ask why. And we often become envious of others who don’t have it as bad as we do—or, at least, don’t appear to have it as bad as we do. And this envy, this sadness at their apparently better situation in life, can eat us alive. It can be like a poison that seeps into our hearts. If we let it in, it will fill every crack and crevasse, hardening, freezing, and sucking the joy out of everything it touches. It will leave us angry, bitter, and full of resentment.
The antidote to the poison that is envy is gratitude. Envy hardens our hearts, gratitude softens them. Envy freezes our hearts, gratitude warms them. Envy sucks the joy out of everything, gratitude finds joy in everything. Envy leads to anger, bitterness, and resentment. Gratitude leads to forgiveness, happiness, and hope. Both envy and gratitude allow us to ask why. But envy shakes its hand at heaven in anger. It refuses to acknowledge that God might have a plan in all of this. Gratitude brings us to our knees in humility. It acknowledges the truth of our first reading: that as high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are God’s ways above our ways, and His thoughts above our thoughts.
Both our responsorial psalm and our second reading offer us powerful examples of gratitude. Our responsorial psalm, psalm 145, is a psalm of praise. And its praise, its gratitude, is comprehensive and unconditional. “Every day will I bless you, and I will praise your name forever and ever.” Psalm 145 is what is called an alphabetic acrostic, which means that every verse begins with a different letter from the Hebrew alphabet. What King David, the author of this psalm, is saying, is that He praises God from “from a to z,” or “from aleph to tav,” as it would be in the Hebrew alphabet. Every day He praises God. There is no moment in his life, no aspect of his life, in which He cannot find a reason to praise God. “I praise you from top to bottom, from left to right, from beginning to end, from a to z.” What a powerful example of gratitude for us! If you’ve been struggling with gratitude lately, pray with psalm 145. Let King David teach you how to praise God in every moment, in every aspect of your life, “from a to z.”
Our second reading also provides us with a powerful example of gratitude. St. Paul is writing this letter to the Philippians from jail. He’s been imprisoned and he’s awaiting trial in Rome. He doesn’t know if he’s going to live or die. Regardless of the outcome, whether freedom or execution, Paul is committed to Christ. He’s committed to praising and magnifying the Lord. “Brothers and sisters, Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.” These are the words of a man who has not let envy darken the doorstep of his heart. He may not understand why God has allowed Him to be imprisoned, why God has dealt him this hand in life, but He remains grateful. Whether he lives or dies, there is reason for praise and thanksgiving.
Later on in the letter, Paul will write this: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7). What a powerful example of gratitude for us! If you’ve been struggling with gratitude lately, read St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s really short—it’s only six pages in my bible. Read the letter to the Philippians and let St. Paul teach you how to rejoice in the Lord always, whether in life or in death.
No matter what God has allowed to happen to us, no matter what we’ve been dealt in life—whether a child with disabilities, a difficult marriage, a dysfunctional family, or an unexpected diagnosis or death—there is reason for gratitude. Let’s not allow envy to poison our hearts. Let’s be grateful. For the Lord is near. He is gracious and merciful. And He will not leave us to carry our burdens alone. Amen.