The spiral-cut ham is cooked and laid on a platter, the potatoes are scalloped and creamy. Something made of eggs — salad, maybe? — and airy dinner rolls share the space with a centerpiece of lilies. The tablecloth is crisp and fine, the china is set with consideration.
The Easter meal is ready, the guests seated around it. Naturally, regardless of belief, heads bow. It’s instinctive, for this meal on this day in this spring season.
Before a bite is eaten, grace is said.
Perhaps it is born of religious devotion or dogmatic tradition, perhaps it is merely the honest expression of a grateful heart.
“It’s from a thankful heart for God providing what is before us,” said the Rev. Tom Barlament of Landmark Baptist Church in Grand Junction. “It’s knowing that it’s because of Him that we get to partake of it, it just doesn’t come from nowhere — it’s His ground, it’s His air, it’s His water.”
In his 1821 essay “Grace Before Meat,” British author Charles Lamb wrote, “The custom of saying grace at meals had, probably, its origin in the early times of the world, and the hunter-state of man, when dinners were precarious things, and a full meal was something more than a common blessing; when a bellyful was a windfall, and looked like a special providence.”
So, with bowls full of food, grace was said, in every form of belief over tables throughout the world. Grace, said the Rev. Andy Baker, children’s pastor at Living Stone Christian Center, is simply about gratitude, “thanking God for what He’s given us, the food before us.”
Therefore, grace is often begun by addressing the higher power to whom gratitude is felt: “Our Father in Heaven,” “Divine Creator,” “Blessed Mother,” or it could be simply begun with “We are thankful,” an acknowledgement of bounty that is said and sent out into the greater panoply of creation.
As for what follows, “the formalities aren’t really that important,” Baker said. “It’s really about the heart. It’s from your heart and it’s what you want to thank God for.”
Grace, then, could be an expression of gratitude for the meal, for regularly having food, for the spring day and the shining sun. It could include thankfulness for friends and family with whom the meal is shared, for love and for life.
“I think it should be spontaneous, what you’re feeling in that moment,” Barlament said. “It shouldn’t be something you planned ahead of time. I don’t there’s a whole lot of meaning to the Lord and those who would hear a prayer that is canned. I think the Lord wants to hear from our hearts. When we speak to Him, we should speak from our hearts and let our hearts guide our words.”
For those who might not regularly offer it, saying grace may cause nervousness or even performance anxiety — a heart laid open and vulnerable, expressing gratitude.
“Prayer should be like conversing with another,” Barlament advised. “If you’re saying grace, it’s like speaking to your wife or children. Saying grace to the Lord is just having a conversation with Him, just letting Him know how much you appreciate Him and everything He’s given you.”
In addition to a thankful heart, grace springs from a humble one — one that acknowledges, aloud or silently, that life is capricious and arbitrary, and blessings are all the sweeter when they come.
“The form then of the Benediction before eating has its beauty at a poor man’s table, or at the simple and unprovocative repasts of children,” Lamb wrote in “Grace Before Meat.” “It is here that the grace becomes exceedingly graceful. The indigent man, who hardly knows whether he shall have a meal the next day or not, sits down to his fare with a present sense of the blessing.”
There are no rules for grace. It can be closed in Jesus Christ’s name, with a simple “thank you” or amen, with poetry or “let’s eat.”
The heart of grace is gratitude, for a universe of blessings and for ham and scalloped potatoes and a centerpiece of lilies, and for the family and friends gathered near.