NOTE: This essay was published 23 years ago in both my hometown newspaper (the Michigan City New-Dispatch on December 13, 1997) and later in the Indianapolis Star (December 21). It is uncannily appropriate for moving through advent in a pandemic.
Table grace at the manger
David R. Weiss – December 10, 1997
Our daughter, Susanna, 21 months old, presides at Advent in our home. For several weeks she has proudly added her own “Amen” at the conclusion of our traditional German Lutheran table prayer before supper. But only since late November, on the very cusp of Advent (approximately the last four weeks before Christmas), has she chosen to begin our prayer, too.
Now, as we nightly take our seats and fold our hands, Susanna’s eyes twinkle, a smile blooms across her face, and she proclaims in an exuberant voice: “Come, Lord Jesus.” That’s as far as she gets. But it’s Advent, and in this season there’s a peculiar wisdom in Susanna’s abridged table prayer.
Of course, we, her parents and older brother, finish the prayer for her, and then we share our meal around a table graced by candlelight from our advent wreath. But it’s worth remembering that before we even take up the prayer ourselves everything essential to the season has already been said and done by a child not yet two.
Susanna already knows the truth of Advent. She beckons Jesus to come, and then she waits. Nothing more. And so it is during Advent. We beckon and we wait—as Susanna does, with expectant and hopeful hearts. “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Advent is something like a long Sabbath for Christians, a full four weeks of holy rest. Yes, we foolishly busy ourselves with all manner of activity: crowding shopping malls, baking cookies, decorating homes and trees. Even devotionally, whether by lighting new candles on the wreath or opening new windows in the calendar, it’s easy to think that it’s our own activity that carries us to Christmas.
But Advent—and Susanna’s abridged table grace—suggest otherwise. “Advent” means something other than merely “future.” The future is that which we bring about, for better or for worse, by our actions in the present. If Christmas were merely in the future, its successful coming would indeed hinge on our buying all the right gifts, baking all the favorite treats, singing the carols in tune, and getting all the lights and ornaments hung just so.
However, Christians will recall (or need to be reminded) that Christmas comes via advent. And advent refers to that which unexpectedly encounters us from the future—with a mind and heart of its own and without any preparation on our part. Advent says that in reality we don’t come to Christmas, Christmas comes to us. As John writes in his gospel (1:14), it isn’t that somehow we manage to meet God in heaven, but rather that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
I’ll do my share of shopping this season. I’ll bake a few batches of cookies. And I’ll string some lights and hang some ornaments. But, thanks to Susanna, each night I remember that none of that is essential. Three words into our table grace and my priorities are set straight again. All we really need to do to get ready for Christmas is to beckon and to wait. Nothing more. And hopefully, in the midst of all the bustle seeking to consume us, at least a few moments each day of nothing less.
Lastly, if it seems unusual to select a table prayer as the basis for a Christmas column, consider this: the blessed babe of Bethlehem is laid … in a manger—in a wooden feeding trough, for God’s sake. No. For our sake. As though, amid all the “gloria in excelsis” being sung by angel multitudes, already, quietly in the background, God is whispering through the wood itself the words that Jesus will speak some thirty years later: “Take and eat, this is my body. This is my blood” (Matt. 26:26, 28). Table grace begins at Christmas. In the manger. Where we see that Christmas itself is a meal—and one at which God bids us to be the guest.
David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.