Whether reacting against the formalism of ‘saying thank you’ before a meal in my youth, or the disdain of liturgy and repeated prayers that comes from my charismatic twenties, we rarely pray ‘grace’ before meals.
I’m beginning to wonder what I’m losing from my own hang up. Thankfulness is a discipline that takes hard work to develop, and every practice that genuinely does should be pursued wholeheartedly. My reticence comes because that wasn’t my experience as a child, it didn’t grow thankfulness in me. It would be worth reflecting on why that was but let’s simply note that saying grace won’t do the work for us.
Alongside that I have a growing sense that there is something deeply holy about gathering around a table to eat: its where our Christianity is practised. It’s making me wonder if at least on those moments when I’m gathered with others around the table—we would in less strange times eat with our Life Group every week, for example—should I be doing something to create a moment, to raise expectation as to what we’re about to do, and to practise thankfulness?
I think like a teacher, so I’m mostly thinking about what those moments of prayer and blessing could teach those I break bread with. Following the work of J. K. A. Smith I’m convinced that if we’re trying to form Christian character in our people then habit is as important (Smith would say more important) as telling people things. We love what we do, and we change our loves by changing what we do—though the challenge that requires discipline is that we also do what we love—rather than by changing how we think.
So I’m wondering if I should be doing something more intentional at mealtimes as a teachable moment that will be good for me too; even if Helen & I didn’t do that every time we sit at our table together.
I got onto this track at Christmas. We shared Christmas day with two other families who live near us rather than travelling across the country to our relatives. We’d arrived at our friends’ home, hugged everyone, and our hostess declared that we were going to read a liturgy together before sitting down to Christmas dinner.
I must admit that in my scoffing heart, I scoffed. My iconoclastic tendencies run deep; I’m a vibrant son of the English Reformation, 400 years out of time. My inclination to smash statues extends to plenty of ordinary practices the Reformers were fine with, and my low church charismatic experience tends to mean everything else gets smashed (read: eyes rolled at, hard).
Friends, it was wonderful. United with dear family after many months of walks and zooms and doorsteps was special to begin with. And then, to declare to our hearts and one another that what we were to do was not simply joyous but the very stuff of life itself, it was a moment.
Towards the end of the liturgy (from Every Moment Holy, you can read it here) we all repeated the line “Let Battle Commence”. I was struck to the heart. When we sit around a table to feast, when we hear the melodious glug of newly opened wine pouring and smell the rousing call of freshly cut roasted meat we go to battle.
We fight with our laughter and our conversation; with our full bellies and happy hearts. We fight against the powers of darkness by declaring that we are thankful. We fight against the materialism of our moment by declaring that this meal is more than fuel, but a gift from the maker. We fight against hurry by declaring that we have the time to sit and to savour. We fight against self-importance and self-righteousness by declaring that we need to be with others around the table. We fight against anger and worry and fear by declaring that joy is found in food and others. We fight with wine and bread, steak and chips, pasta bake and roast chicken and big vats of chilli. We fight with our greatest weapon, laughter.
Ever wonder why every good adventure ends in a feast? In wine and song? Why every fairy tale ends with a marriage—the champagne and cake implied if not described? Because when we feast we fight, and when we feast we declare that the fight is won. Because history ends not with a courtroom or a montage, but with a meal.
The table is a battlefield. This year more than ever. We have empty chairs and empty tables, but not because of comrades dead in a revolution, simply because we are stuck, separated. Our tables are mournful, battles waiting to be fought. If your table does not feel mournful, if it doesn’t feel empty, or if you aren’t dearly missing your spot at another’s table, then ask yourself some hard questions.
The table is a battlefield whether I declare it or not, but to declare it is to engage in counter-formation. To declare it is to call into the light what’s happening and so to help us consider and enjoy it as it does.
So dear friends, come to our table. It is a battlefield. Squish onto the bench next to many others squeezing in. It is a battle line. Smell the baked bread, the simmering sauce, the piled-high plates. It is a battle cry. Hear the cat announce she wants some, the hubbub of happy voices, the clink of glasses and friends gathered in mirth. It is the clash of weapons. And as we raise our voices in prayer to declare to the heavens, to the Enemy, to the Lord of Life, that all of life is sacred and that this moment is a holy moment because we say it is so: let battle be joined!