Saying Grace (2010)

This is a repost (and slight updating) of an article (sermon, homily, whatever {g}) that I wrote on Thanksgiving 2007 for the Cadre.

The original article and its subsequent discussion (on a couple of topics) can be found here.


“Would you say grace?” someone in my family will ask, to an elder before a family meal--a meal such as Thanksgiving, for instance.

Of course what they mean is, “Would you give thanks?” But the phrase in English could be more accurately translated, “Would you say ‘grace’?” In our language, ‘grace’ derives from the same Latin root as Spanish ‘gracias’ or Italian ‘grazie’. Strictly speaking our English word traces back to a Middle English translation of an Old French translation of the Latin {gra_tia} (the long ‘a’ being represented by an underscore here): favor, gratitude, agreeableness. The attitude expressed is one of actively receiving love, in fair-togetherness.

In New Testament Greek, however, the word that is typically Englished as ‘grace’ does not have this meaning. Nor does the Hebrew/Aramaic which the New Testament authors were translating or thinking about (typically following the Septuagint). The meaning there is not different in content, exactly, but different in direction: the reference is not primarily to the receiver, in thankfulness, but to the giver--for which the proper response from the receiver is, ideally, an active acknowledgment and thankfulness.

What I find most interesting about this, is that the Greek word chosen for expressing this notion is rooted in the ancient Greek word for joy: chara. Thus {charis}, and its cognates, in context, means ‘freely given joy’. And so it is entirely appropriate, when one perceives that joy has been freely given--an action of indisputable love and fair-togetherness--to acknowledge that this has been done by naming that which has been given: to say ‘I thank you’ by saying ‘grace’.

This has deep topical (though not linguistic) links to the notion of ‘acclaim’--a New Testament Greek word often Englished as ‘confess’; which isn’t an altogether inaccurate translation, but which more literally could be called ‘speak (or reason) out with’. The basic idea is that a person is actively cohering with another person. One of the more striking cases is found in Luke’s story of Judas Iscariot: “Now, coming away [from the group, during the final week in Jerusalem before the Passover], he [Judas] confers with the chief priests and officers as to how he may be giving up Him [Jesus] to them. And they rejoiced, and they agreed to give him silver. And he •acquiesces•; and sought opportunity to give Him up to them minus a throng.” [GosLuke 22:4-6, Knoch’s translation] ‘Acquiesce’, in English, can be a little weak. The Greek is much stronger: he acted (and so declared) in an agreeing unity with them.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, after relating to his congregation the hymn concerning the prior divinity and incarnated humanity of Christ (2:5-8), urging his listeners to be of a similar disposition to the attitude and intentions of Christ in His action of doing so, continues with one of the most famous and well-known declarations in Christendom: a declaration that includes not only this action of unity agreement, but also a verbing of the term {charis}. Most Christians will be able to quote a phrase from this declaration already; but listen to it in its fullness, with these contextual meanings restored to the verses:

“Therefore, God also highly exalts Him [Jesus] and in joy is freely giving Him the name above every name!--so that in the name of Jesus [i.e. “The Lord saves” or “The Lord is Salvation”] every knee shall be bowing, celestial and terrestrial and subterranean, and every tongue shall be agreeing in unity with each other that Jesus Christ is Lord, into the glory of God the Father!” (Phil 2:9-11)

Leaving aside as controversial the scope of this declaration and this hope (so colorfully expressed by the Apostle), notice that the thanks for salvation is consonant with the freely given joy of God the Father: a joy connected with the giving of the name itself, a name of promised salvation, representing not only the intentions but the character of God Himself.

Nowhere is this more unexpectedly expressed, perhaps, than in a story of Jesus unique to Luke: the story of an unnamed woman, fairly early in Jesus’ ministry, who crashes an intellectual dinner in a most scandalous fashion.

(The following translation is one I wrote for The King of Stories, [the index to which can be found here]. I locate this incident as occurring not long after the healing of Jairus’ daughter.)

Now, a certain Pharisee asked Him to dinner; and entering into the Pharisee's house, He reclined (at the table).

And look! a woman who was in the city, a sinner! (or 'a woman “of the city”, who was a sinner')

Now realizing He is lying at the table in the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of attar.

And standing behind at His feet (where He was reclining), weeping, she now starts raining His feet with tears; and with the hair on her head she wiped them off, and fondly kissing His feet she rubbed them with the attar.

Now--when the Pharisee who invited Him saw this, he said to himself: "If this man was a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman is touching Him, that she is a sinner!"

Answering, Jesus said toward him, "Simon, I have something to tell you."

And he strongly agreed, "Say on, Rabbi!"

"Two debtors paying usury were owing a certain moneylender; one owed five hundred days wages, and the other owed fifty. Now, as they had nothing to pay with, he freely gives them joy instead. So which of them will be loving him more?"

Answering, Simon said, "I suppose the one to whom he gave more joy."

And He said to him, "You have judged correctly."

Now turning to the woman, He strongly declared to Simon:

"You see this woman, don't you!? I came into your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, no kiss of greeting, no oil to rub on My face! Yet she rains tears on My feet! And with her hair she wipes them off; and she rubs attar on My feet; and from the time I arrived, she hasn't ceased in fondly kissing My feet!

"I say to you: her sins, which are many, are pardoned; on behalf of which she loves this much.

"But he who is forgiven little, loves little."

And He said to the woman: "Your sins have been forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace."

Yet those who were reclining with Him began saying among themselves...

..."Who is this, who even is pardoning sins?!"

This incident is (almost?) unique, in the New Testament, including in Luke’s account, for its colloquial way of speaking of forgiveness and the mending of disrupted relationships between persons. The one who has been wronged is described as freely giving joy to those who have done the wrong. It is easy to see why joy is invoked in this description: love is actively given in this act, and love (in reciprocation) is actively received, to be given then in return and so on in the rhythmic actions of unity. Moreover, in this parable from Jesus, it is the one who was wronged who initiates the giving of the joy to those who have wronged him. Yet though their supplication is not mentioned, neither is the responsibility of the wrong-doer neglected; for Jesus (so Luke reports) also states that the faith of the woman has saved her.

The mending cannot be done without the active participation of both of the people; but we, as derivative creatures, depend upon God for our very existence and abilities. Indeed it is by God’s grace, by His freely given joy, that we exist in the first place and continue to exist at all. In a very real sense, it is even by God’s grace that we can sin--for though this is an abuse of the grace of God, the grace to be abused must still be given.

It is striking and challenging, then, to read the scriptures with this understanding: that when we see the word of ‘grace’, we ought to try substituting that with “freely given joy” (or some cognate thereof), and see how this affects our further understanding of the passages.

But what (it may be reasonably asked) does any of this have to do with apologetics? My answer is that this has deep connections to the theological distinction between trinitarian theism (I mean of the orthodox kind), and any other kind of theism imaginable, including proposed in other religions and philosophies.

If orthodox trinitarian theism is true (and I believe it is), then God is a (personally) singular unity of distinct persons. In one kind of tri-theism (for example the classic Celtic exposition of Maiden, Mother, Crone), the persons are not in fact distinct but are only masks or appearances of the divine in regard to certain human conventions. Or again, in another kind of tri-theism (for example in Mormonism), the persons though distinct are not the single unified ground of existence.

Or yet again, in cosmological dualisms (such as a Manichean God/Anti-God cosmology; or in a neo-pagan notion of Father/Mother, which is related to a less religious God/Nature disparity among some philosophers) the two separate grounds of reality have no common interaction with one another. (Or else if they do, then being of distinct ‘substances’ in philosophical parlance they thus are interacting within a common field or system of existence, and this is what we ought to be discussing instead when doing ontological work.)

If orthodox trinitarian theism is true, however, then God the self-begetting is one person; and God the self-begotten is also distinctly a person; and the two of them in their personal relationship with each other actively ground not only their singular existence as God but also (as the final ground of all reality) ground the existence of all derivative reality: including you and me and the system of Nature in which we live.

God is love, and fair-togetherness (the word that from Greek we typically English as “righteousness”), and positive justice therefore--if this is true. (I am not at this time discussing the role and existence of the 3rd Person in this economy; suffice to say that He distinctly proceeds instead of being begotten. In other words, His existence has nothing specifically to do with the self-existence of God, or of derivative reality.)

Please note that I am not here arguing that we should believe this is true; I am only pointing out the distinctions involved--and I am pointing out what is at stake in different propositions concerning God.

A singular person as the ground of all reality, does not give us love as the ground of all reality--for there is no coherent personal interaction as the ground of this God’s existence (and everything else). This remains true even if the person can be perceived in different circumstances as if there were different persons. It is only an ‘as if’.

Multiple personal grounds of reality, do not give us love as the ground of all reality--for they utterly do not share a common existence. (Which indeed renders the concept meaningless as a practical or even a principle proposal; but that is another discussion.)

Multiple persons who are not the singular ground of all reality, do not give us love as the ground of all reality--for they are not the ground of all reality but exist within that ground or system.

But God the Father and God the Son, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance, God self-begetting and God self-begotten--

--this does mean that true love is the ground of all reality. The grace, the {charis}, of God, is love actively given and actively received in (so to speak) active submission, between distinct persons. This is God’s freely given joy. God’s grace does not depend on sin, but where sin exceeds grace hyperexceeds: for not as the sin is the grace!

The grace of God is the ground and the cause of derivative creation;

and the grace of God is the hope of reconciliation between man and man as well as between man and God;

and the grace of God is the faith and the hope and the love that shall be enduring when all the things that can be shaken have been shaken!

Unless orthodox Christian theology is true, there is no objectively moral final ground to appeal to; only, at best, the mere exercise of mere power.

And that, as most people intuitively understand, is not love.

That is what is at stake, in specifically Christian apologetics.

As for me, being persuaded that this is true, I acclaim God, and give thanks both to Him and to His mediant agents (human or otherwise!) for all the love they are willing to give me; and so I say...

thank you. (and I sorrow for my sins against you, all of you, above and below, and reject my selfishness, in hope of the day to come when I will have finally finished dying--by God’s grace, and with God’s help.)

And to all our readers around the world, on this Thanksgiving weekend, whether or not we must be striving in this vale of separation, I say, from the bottom of my heart:

God’s grace and hope to all of you, above and below!

Amen. {s}

Jason Pratt


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking.

I'll be back Monday (God willing and the creek don't rise {g}) with the next entry in the "Reason and the 2nd Person" series.


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