In her recent opinion piece, Mallory Challis reminded us of the importance of saying grace over a meal. Singing grace is another fulfilling way to express our gratitude for food and other blessings.
The ritual and spiritual discipline of singing a table blessing and grace after eating has a rich history in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Today people typically offer a blessing or thanks before meals. However, Old Testament evidence suggests the Hebrews offered prayers after meals. They were instructed to offer a post-meal blessing: “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you,” says Deuteronomy 8:10. The Hebrews also offered distinct prayers over different types of food: grains, vegetables, wine.
The synoptic Gospels relate that when Jesus fed the multitudes, he looked heavenward, blessed, and broke the loaves of bread. At Jesus’ final Passover meal with his disciples, he offered thanks for the bread and wine. Other New Testament passages endorse acts of thanksgiving before eating.
An early church leader, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE), suggested it was appropriate to bless the food before eating and express gratitude after the meal. Clement also suggested incorporating the singing of a Psalm during the meal.
By the fourth century, singing grace was a common practice in monasteries, with the daily regimen of monastic orders mandating sung table graces an essential part of daily life. Martin of Braga, a sixth century Portuguese bishop, instructed clergy and laity never to eat until a hymn had been sung, and then after the meal give thanks to God. Thus, a tripartite ritual arc of blessing-meal-thanksgiving evolved early in the history of the Christian church.
“By the fourth century, singing grace was a common practice in monasteries.”
Sixteenth-century Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin provided further impetus for table blessings by encouraging household devotions. Both Reformers published prayers for use before and after eating.
Louis Bourgeois, credited with the 16th-century Genevan Psalter, published a collection of psalm settings in which “prayers before and after dinner” appeared. In the 18th century, John and Charles Wesley encouraged personal piety and family devotions by including table graces for before and after the meal in several of their hymn collections.
“Now Thank We All Our God,” a hymn from the 17th-century century German Reformed tradition, is sung in churches and other gatherings around Thanksgiving. This hymn, written by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), a Lutheran pastor, was intended as a sung table blessing for his family.
Rinkart published it in Jesu Herz-Buchlein (Heart of Jesus Booklet, 1636) with the oldest print version (1661) included in the section “Prayers after Meals.” Catherine Winkworth’s 19th-century translation allowed for English-speaking churches to learn and sing this hymn.
The tune traditionally sung is Johann Crüger’s nun danket alle gott, a German chorale from the 17th century.
Rinkart’s opening lines paraphrase a benediction from the apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus 50:22–24 and are similar to Luther’s translation of the same Scripture. The first two stanzas express complete gratitude for the totality of God’s blessings from birth, throughout this life and in the next. The second stanza includes a petition for God to guard and guide us. The third stanza concludes the hymn with a Trinitarian doxology.
The profound thanksgiving offered in this hymn is especially poignant since it was written during the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Rinkart spent most of his ministry in the walled town of Eilenburg, which was a sanctuary for refugees from the war. With overcrowded conditions, there were frequent periods of disease and famine. After the deaths of the remaining clergy in Eilenburg, Rinkart assumed the responsibility of reading the funeral service over 40 to 50 people a day. By the end of the war, he had read services for 4,480 people, one of whom was his first wife.
It is both amazing and inspiring that while experiencing and suffering the brutal ravages of that war and its aftermath, Rinkart wrote a hymn that is a joyful expression of gratitude. It remains popular throughout Germany and the English-speaking world.
“Rather than offering a spoken, and often perfunctory, prayer before a meal, attempt singing this hymn as a table grace.”
Rather than offering a spoken, and often perfunctory, prayer before a meal, attempt singing this hymn as a table grace. Although it may present a challenge, try learning it gradually. Learning and singing one stanza a week is manageable. YouTube recordings can assist in both learning and singing. Perhaps the experience will prompt and stimulate thoughtful table discussions with your family about gratitude and God’s generosity.
Informed by the church’s liturgy in song, there exists an abundance of hymns and songs that can be adapted as table blessings or prayers.
The refrain from “For the Beauty of the Earth” is effective as a response to prayers offered around the table, as in a responsorial psalm or collect. The stanzas also may be sung, learning them individually over time and reflecting on their meaning.
“For the Fruit of All Creation,” by Fred Pratt Green, is an exemplary modern text to learn and offer as a table blessing with its thoughtful themes of cultivation, harvest, both physically and spiritually. Sincere gratitude for God’s gifts of wonders, truths and love is expressed in the hymn’s simple litany “Thanks be to God.”
A good option from the contemporary worship song canon is “Give Thanks with A Grateful Heart.” From the Taizé community, the simple song “In the Lord, I’ll Be Ever Thankful” is an effective table song.
As we gather around our tables during this season focused on gratitude, and before the holiday seasonal music overtakes us as earworms, consider expanding your spiritual disciplines to singing grace.
Beverly A. Howard lives in Fort Worth, Texas. She is a retired university music professor, former editor of The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song, and member of hymnal committees that prepared Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal and Celebrating Grace: Hymnal for Baptist Worship. She is one of the collaborating authors of Sing with Understanding, Third Edition: An Introduction to the Theology of Christian Congregational Song (2022) with Martin V. Clarke, C. Michael Hawn, and Geoffrey Moore. For more on this topic, see her recent article “Singing Grace at Table: Options beyond rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub,” The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song, Vol. 72, #2, Spring 2021.
Four reasons saying grace is important | Opinion by Mallory Challis
Two days with the monks: Protestant envy, confusion and gratitude | Opinion by Brett Younger