Saying Grace – March 29, 2018
Be present at our table, Lord;
Be here and everywhere adored;
Thy creatures bless, and grant that we
May feast in paradise with Thee.
Every time my grandparents visited, something different would happen at the dinner table. Under normal circumstances, my family meals began in a staggered fashion. Some members of the family—I won’t mention any names—tended to be less than prompt in responding to the nightly announcement that dinner was ready, so other members of the family would go ahead and eat while the food was still hot. But when either set of grandparents was joining us for dinner no one dared eat anything until everyone arrived at the table. Only then would we sit down, join hands, and say grace.
Praying before meals has never been something I’ve felt entirely comfortable with—maybe because when I was a child it was something I engaged in only performatively, only to satisfy others when I knew they were watching, or maybe because in an increasingly secular and fast-moving age it is something I rarely see anyone else doing. Many of us still say grace at formal occasions or church events or large family gatherings during the holidays, but how many of us say grace before a casual meal in a restaurant? I have done it a few times and I honestly find the experience quite agitating. It is not easy to concentrate on what you are trying to communicate to God when servers are hovering around you, eager to place the final condiment on your table, and when you can feel the stare of other diners at your naked, defenseless religiosity. I find it telling that I dine with fellow clergy members regularly, and it is rare for any of them to want to say grace before eating. You say may grace at every meal and feel no compunction about doing so, but if you find saying grace awkward or embarrassing, you’re in good company.
In twenty-first century New England, saying grace may cause us some unease. It actually makes a lot of sense, however, from a theological or spiritual perspective. Grace sets meals apart from the rest of everyday existence, indicating that eating together is, or should be, a sacred experience, a holy set of moments in which God is especially present. At the very heart of our Christian tradition is the experience of eating together that we commemorate and participate in tonight—and, indeed, on many other occasions on which we gather together. It is at a meal that Jesus offers himself as sustenance, kneels down to wash the disciples’ feet, and tells the disciples to love one another—a meal that, at least according to some sources, was itself a remembrance of another, much older meal in which God delivered the Jewish people from oppression and captivity. When we say grace—when we invoke God’s presence on a meal that we share with other people—we recognize that God often appears when human beings eat together.
Saying grace also acknowledges that meals are essential to our survival. We thank God for the food that is before us because we need food to keep on living; without food we would die. We thank God also for the presence of each other because we also need the sustenance provided by the love we share; without love we would also die. But the strange paradox about meals is that they depend on death even as they defend against it. Norman Wirzba points out that, in eating, we are sustained by the death and destruction of other organisms: “for people to live they must eat, which means they must consume the lives of others.” This is true whether we eat meat or not. “Death is not an inexplicable accident that happens to life,” Robert Farrar Capon writes, “it is the very engine by which life runs. It is by the deaths of chickens, chicory and chickpeas that you have lived until today.”
The Passover Lamb dies, and its blood protects the Israelites from a plague. Jesus dies, and his body and blood become food for his followers. Something even dies when Jesus washes his disciples feet: a hierarchy of power that caused division between those who served and those who were served. It would be a mistake to minimize the role of death in these stories. Death is a necessary ingredient in all of them; the transformation they describe could not happen without death; death provides the fuel to keep the cycle of life going.
Death, then, is inescapable, but it is not the end of the story. Jesus dies not so that we might die with him but so that we might keep on living, and in the sacrament of his Body and Blood he gives us the fuel in order to do so. His body is broken to become a part of us, so that all of us together might be his Body reconstituted and alive in the world. When we pray before a meal—as we will in the Great Thanksgiving in just a moment—when we say grace, we not only thank God for the food before us, for the deaths that have made it possible for us to eat; we also make a commitment to ensure that those deaths have not been in vain; to put the food we consume to good use; to be energized by it so that we might love one another as Jesus has loved us, so that we might be his Body; so that we might live.