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2013.12.06 =>

Attitude v. Gratitude

Many will say this is the wrong time of year, but I can never hear the word “thanksgiving” without recalling some lines I heard many a time when young:

On the night he was betrayed, he took bread and gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said:

Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.

When supper was ended, he took the cup. Again he gave you thanks and praise, gave the cup to his disciples, and said:

Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.

That’s the Roman missal, collapsing the Last Supper from the three synoptic Gospels together with Paul in First Corinthians. All the sources agree that Jesus took up the bread and wine having given thanks (εὐχαριστήσας), whence our word “Eucharist.” But in the Bible that thanks is not explicitly directed anywhere. It’s only the missal, itself an address to God the Father, which inserts the “you,” and so takes the position that thanks can’t be given without a recipient.

It’s no mystery to whom the first Thanksgiving was addressed. But for us secularists, the answer is not so obvious. If we distrust homage for the same reason we distrust petitionary prayer, that it seems to evoke a feudal relationship, then any more nebulous expression of gratitude will look much like tribute sent to an empty castle.

Before εὐχάριστος meant “thankful,” it meant simply pleasant. In Herodotus, Solon tells Croesus that no man may be called fortunate till he die happily (τελευτήσῃ εὐχαρίστως τὸν βίον). And that makes sense, if we’re willing to extend gratitude without a recipient to something like the sentiment behind Wittgenstein’s last words, on hearing that his friends were coming: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

But we don’t utter deathbed words every day.

On the other hand, we do eat every day. Communal feasts have no metaphysical ladders to climb, since what we commemorate in sitting around a table is foremost, tautologically, our presence at the table. The Eucharist has to take place in public. St. Paul tasks us with reenacting the supper in order to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” and that would be an unbearable duty were it not shared. So pass the bread and wine, brothers.

Sometimes, too, we have other things than death to proclaim. I’ll let Alex Chilton close out.

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