For much of this summer we have had the delight of our youngest granddaughter staying with us. Two and a half-years old, Agatha has a wonderful way of expressing herself. So, for instance, when I ask her to say grace she replies: “Grandpa’s grace. Thank you Lord Jesus for this good food. Amen.” It is my grace in the sense that this was the grace that was taught to me by my parents when I too was a small child. Actually, it was not the only grace my parents taught us. Sometimes as children we used to sing grace: “For health and strength and daily food, we gave you thanks O Lord”. If we felt particularly energetic, then we would sing this grace as a round – either in English or, arising from our time of living in Switzerland, in Swiss German!
Saying grace at table was just a natural part of life. Indeed, it reflected the Christian society to which we belonged. We said grace not just at home, but at school and then later my Cambridge college.
As befitted a minor public school founded by an Elizabethan archbishop, grace was in Latin: ”Gratias tibi agimus, deus omnipotens, pro omnibus beneficiis tuis, per Jesus Christum, Dominum nostrum. Amen (We give you thanks almighty God for all your benefits, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen). Incidentally almost certainly the opening word ‘gratia’ is the origin for the English word ‘grace’.
As befitted a Cambridge college which in 1496 took over a former Benedictine nunnery, the grace was also in Latin, but a good deal longer than that of my old school: Oculi omnium in te aspiciunt et in te sperant, Deus. Tu das illis escam tempore opportuno. Aperis tu manus, et imples omne animal benedictione tua. Benedic nobis, Domine, et omnibus tuis donis, quae ex larga liberalitate tua sumpturi sumus, per Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum. Deus est caritas. Qui manet in caritate manet in Deo et Deus in illo. Sit Deus in nobis, et nos maneamus in illo. (The eyes of all look towards you and trust in you, O God. You give them food in due season. You open your hands and fill every living thing with your blessing. Bless us, O Lord, and all your gifts, which through your great generosity we are about to receive, through Jesus Christ our Lord. God is love. He who abides in love abides in God and God in him. May God be in us and may we abide in him.)
Caroline and I continue to say grace at every meal. Normally it is fairly simple, but we often combine it with a prayer for the day or the challenges which have arisen during the day. Saying grace, of course, is not a distinctively Christian custom. Indeed, our Christian grace has its roots in Judaism, where before each meal the head of the house would bless God for the food: “Blessed be you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth”. Do notice that it is God and not the food that is blessed. To bless God is a Jewish expression for thanking God. I am always surprised by the many Christians who feel they need to ‘bless’ the food, as though the food was suspect!
Then, of course, there are Christians who on principle say a long grace in a restaurant as an act of witness, but then are embarrassed when the waitress comes up to ask if they need ketchup! My normal custom in a public place is to keep grace short and sweet – which in turn reminds me of the Latin grace which was always said at Caroline’s Cambridge college: Benedictus benedicat (“May the Blessed be blessed!”).
Then there are Christians who feel that saying grace is an empty ritual. My parents were good friends of a minister and his wife who never said grace but rather from time to time would go to their pantry and thank God for his provision. There is no compelling reason to say grace. God will not be angry if we don’t! Saying grace is not a requirement – but it is a helpful ritual for both us and our families to retain our perspective on who ultimately provides for our lives.
However, for those who want to ensure the grace is not an empty ritual for young families, there are ways of giving an extra dimension to saying grace. One way, for instance, to liven up proceedings is to roll a large dice and see which of the inscribed graces comes out on top! I bought online such a prayer dice, but I confess that I was not enamoured with the graces which had been chosen.
Another way of giving a distinctive stamp to saying grace is to link it with a Scripture verse for the day. As I discovered in my gap year between school and university, amongst German-speaking ‘Pietists’ there is the custom of linking grace at the main meal of the day with a Scripture verse taken from a Moravian Mennonite collection of daily Scripture verses for the year. The cynic might say it is a truncated form of family prayers. However, as I look back on living for six months with a German Baptist family, I found that using the collection of Losungen (literally, ‘watchwords’ or ‘slogans’) proved a positive experience with the children.
At the end of the day, saying grace at the table is simply a way of saying thank-you to God for ‘daily bread’. How precisely we do it, matters not a whit.