This post began as an article written for St. Stephen Lutheran Church’s Weekly Voice back in November of 2011. It may find its way into a forthcoming collection of devotional meditations, but for now it is here. It seemed like time to share it again.
I love words. I love the look of them on the page, typed out in Times New Roman or scrawled in my grandmother’s handwriting. I love the sound of them inside my mind and in the canals of my ears. I love the feel of them on my tongue and lips as they roll out of my mouth and into the air. If I could eat words I believe I would love the taste of them; that I would savor them in my mouth and delight in feeling them slip down my throat and into my stomach. I love how a single word can be so rich with meaning and etymological roots; that it can mean a great many things depending on its context. When new knowledge gives added meaning to a familiar term I sit with it, play with it, and allow it to live in me, to change me. That is what has happened with one word in particular this season.
Eucharisteo – to be thankful; to feel thanks; to give thanks.
It is a word that we see roughly 40 times in the Bible. At the front-end we find, “Eucharist,” a term familiar in many Christian traditions. It is a name given to a ritual that has also been called “Communion” or “The Lord’s Supper,” a meal that was instituted by Jesus the night before his death. But the term “Eucharist” is more than a synonym for a sacrament. It is word that means thanks. And it isn’t our thanks that the title is meant to suggest; it’s his.
Jesus is in the upper room of a home in Jerusalem. He has journeyed here with his disciples, his students, his friends. Thousands of Jews have made a pilgrimage to this holy city every year around this time. Jerusalem is packed and the mood, though fraught with political tension, is celebratory. It is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Fourth of July in Washington, D.C. The table is covered with dishes of food and ceremonial cups of wine. They represent the deliverance of a people, his people, a deliverance from slavery and salvation from oppression. Jesus has been celebrating this festival for over thirty years. He knows the songs from memory and the responses by heart. He knows the story behind the roasted eggs and the significance of the apple-date-nut charoset. Each year he has joined these people in thanking God for rescue from bondage, praising God for the promise of a Savior. But this time, it is different. This time, he is the savior.
As his family of friends begin the three-hour meal, only Jesus carries the burden of knowing what will follow—suffering, anguish, death. The candles are lit, a prayer is said, and together thirteen men drink the Cup of Sanctification. They wash their hands, dip the herbs, and break the matzo, wrapping the best portion (the afikomen) and hiding it away. Four questions are asked. Four answers are given. The matzo is dipped. The meal is served. It is abundant and delicious, rich with flavors and spices. Conversation and wine flow freely. Each eats his fill and is satisfied.
After the meal, the afikomen—the hidden piece of matzo that has been wrapped in linen—reappears. Afikomen: that which is coming; that which has not yet been consumed. Jesus unwraps it and eucharisteo—he gives thanks. He gives thanks for this simple, ordinary, everyday food, for the unleavened bread that is saved until the end of the meal, for the “what is to come,” that is now being realized.
During this final portion of the meal, Jesus gives thanks, and then he gives more. He breaks the bread and shares it with his friends. “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” They do. They share it. They eat it. Jesus takes a cup of wine, the third of the symbolic cups in the Passover meal, the Cup of Redemption. He lifts it and eucharisteo—he gives thanks. Thanks for this everyday, ordinary drink. Thanks for the sacrifice of the grapes crushed in its production. Thanks for the rescue that has come, and the rescue that is coming. He assigns it new meaning, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” he states. “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
And as Jesus does all of this you have to wonder if the disciples realize what is happening, if they recognize that they are celebrating more than political deliverance.
Eucharisteo—at its root the word charis, meaning grace. Jesus took the bread and saw it as grace, recognized it as gift, and gave thanks. He gave thanks, knowing he would die. Gave thanks despite the suffering and anguish in the world. Gave thanks for what was ordinary, what was present, what was gift.
The root of the word charis is chara, meaning joy. At the heart of euCHARisteo—thanksgiving—is charis, the recognition of what is gift and what is grace. And in the center of it all we find chara, joy. Our deepest chara (joy) is found in the very act of eucharisteo, of giving thanks.
We are in a season of Thanksgiving, a season of giving and sharing, of cooking and eating and joining together to celebrate. For many this is a time of great joy. Some say that this joy comes in the act of giving food and shelter, of providing for others. But might it not come from a different kind of giving? A giving that isn’t as tangible, but is equally real. Eucharisteo—to give thanks. Thanks for the grace, the gift, that is already present.
(This conception of eucharisteo was gleaned from Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts)