Not infrequently, Americans gather around a bountiful table of meat, potatoes, vegetables and desserts. And many of them do so with prayer and expressions of gratitude for gifts received.
While we might take such a moment of prayer for granted, do you ever think of eating as a time of worship? Maybe you should.
Most of us learned to pray before meals a long time ago. Parents teach their small children to pray before meals and, sometimes, even after meals. Such prayer before meals is sometimes called “grace,” as in, “Let’s say grace,” coming from the Latin word gratia, meaning “thanks.”
Why do we pray over our meals? Because we, as a community of believers, learned it a long time ago.
The custom of praying over a meal is ancient in our faith tradition. Even before Jesus — who prayed over the gifts of the Last Supper and over the gifts at the multiplication of the loaves and fish — ancient Jews prayed over their meals.
They did so in gratitude both for the food and for the land which the Lord had given them.
In Deuteronomy 8:10, we see the ancient order given to prayer at meals attributed to Moses: “But when you have eaten and are satisfied, you must bless the Lord, your God, for the good land he has given you.” Modern Jews call this the Birkat HaMazon (“blessing on nourishment”).
Following this tradition, as well as the custom of Jesus’ own meal prayers, early Christians offered prayer over their own meals. Several early Church Fathers cited the need to pray before meals, both in thanksgiving and as part of the natural desire to worship God. For example, Tertullian, who lived and wrote in the early third century, noted in his treatise “On Prayer” that “it becomes believers not to take food … before interposing a prayer; for the refreshments and nourishments of the spirit are to be held prior to those of the flesh, and things heavenly prior to things earthly” (Chapter 25).
Thanks from a Pope
Our familiar meal prayer today — “Bless us, O Lord” — dates back to the Gelasian Sacramentary, named for Pope Gelasius, who led the Church at the end of the fifth century, but who did not write this liturgical book.
Nonetheless, the book dates back to at least the eighth century and from it we have the roots of this prayer.
Short though it is, our blessing prayer contains three of the four following main types of prayer: gratitude, supplication, praise and contrition. We can break the meal prayer down into these specific prayer parts:
Supplication: “Bless us, O Lord”
Gratitude: “and these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty,”
Praise: “through Christ our Lord, Amen.”
That’s a lot of prayer, handled in just a few words. The Dictionary of the Liturgy describes a good meal prayer as something that “usually includes a request for His blessing on the food and the group present, together with gratitude to the Lord for His gifts and an expression of our total dependence upon Him even for food and drink…. In this fashion, the mealtime … becomes an act of worship.”
That covers supplications, gratitude and praise (as in worship). But wait? Where is the “dependence” part of our “Bless us, O Lord”?
That comes in the act of praying itself. By taking time, before eating, to ask God’s blessing, we show that we know how much we need His care — not only to bring us the food, but to let it nourish us and bring us health and well-being.
Meals Parallel Mass
Our simple meal prayer, said in a homelike setting, follows the pattern of our worship in church at Mass: prayers of praise, supplication and gratitude; expressions of faithful dependence upon God; the desire to do better as we are strengthened by the sacred meal. Then, fed and nourished, we are sent out from the church building to bring the worship of God into everyday life.
Meal prayer is one way to do this: It keeps us linked to the never-ending daily prayer of the Church and reminds us of the sacred meal that Jesus left for us, to be shared in community, until He comes again.
Most of all, prayer at meals puts us in God’s presence on a regular basis. By praying at meals we daily remind ourselves our proper place in the plan of creation: we are stewards of God and disciples of Christ.
The U.S. bishops, in their 1992 pastoral on stewardship (“Stewardship A Disciple’s Response”), said: “Jesus’ disciples and Christian stewards recognize God as the origin of life, giver of freedom and source of all things. We are grateful for the gifts we have received and are eager to use them to show our love for God and one another.”
Offering prayer at daily meals shows gratitude and an eager response to God’s love as it is poured out on us and on all those with whom we share “our bounty through Christ our Lord” — including scrambled eggs and turkey dinners.
Patricia Kasten is associate editor at The Compass, the newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.
Prayers Before Meals in the Early Church
Thou, Master almighty, didst create all things for Thy name’s sake; You gavest food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to Thee; but to us You didst freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Thy Servant.
— Didache, first century
So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.
— 1 Corinthians 10:31
Before taking nourishment it is fitting to praise the Creator of all things, and it is fitting also to sing His praises when we take as nourishment the things created by Him.
— Clement of Alexandria, The Pedagogue, II.4
Our repasts are in nothing vile or immodest. We do not recline until we have prayed to God. In like manner prayer concludes the feast.
— Tertullian, Apol., xxxi
We give Thee thanks, our Father, for the Resurrection which Thou hast manifested to us through Jesus, Thy Son; and even as this bread which is here on this table was formerly scattered abroad and has been made compact and one, so may Thy Church be reunited from the ends of the earth for Thy Kingdom, for Thine is the power and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
— Attributed to St. Athanasius, from a fourth-century formula
The merciful and compassionate Lord has given nourishment to those who fear Him. Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, now and forever and throughout the ages. Almighty God and our Lord Jesus Christ, whose name is above all things, we give Thee thanks and praise Thee because Thou hast deigned to give us a portion of Thy goods and nourishment for our body. We pray and beseech Thee to give us in like manner heavenly nourishment. Make us fear and reverence Thy law and Thy terrible and glorious name, and grant that we may never disobey Thy precepts. Write in our hearts Thy law and Thy justice. Sanctify our mind, our soul and our body through Thy dear Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. To whom with Thee belongs glory, dominion, honor and adoration for ever and ever. Amen.
— Attributed to St. Athanasius, from a fourth-century formula