What Is Thanks? Eucharist in the Church

The combined sacrificial-verbal todah (thank offering) carries over directly into the Christian Supper. The main elements of the ancient Israelite rite are present, either in the New Testament or in very early post-apostolic celebrations of the Eucharist.

1) Jesus instructs his disciples to “do this” – not only to eat and drink but to re-perform his preparation for eating and drinking: Take, give thanks/bless, break and distribute. Christians early acknowledged the central role of thanksgiving in the rite, assigning the name “Eucharist” to the entire ritual.

2) Like todah Psalms, the Eucharistic prayer includes a more or less detailed recital of the great acts of God, especially his final act of sending his Son Jesus to live, die, and rise again.[1] Further, the Eucharist is embedded in a liturgy that includes prayers and hymns that recount and celebrate God’s mighty acts.

3) The todah sacrifice and the Psalms of thanks not only acknowledge God’s goodness in the past but, by memorializing past actions, called on God to act again and again in the same manner. Jesus means much the same when he describes the Supper as “my memorial.” By reciting God’s act in Christ, the Eucharistic prayer calls on the Father to continue to fulfill the promises that are Yes and Amen in his Son. By presenting and consuming the tokens of Christ’s body and blood, the church memorializes his death until he comes.

4) Like the todah, the Christian Eucharist is a shared meal. The church feeds on the Son who is the bread of heaven, the bread that has already satisfied the Father.

5) Like the todah, the Eucharist is a witness to God’s acts for Israel, a witness against the idols of every age and to the world that does not yet know him.

When David imagined giving thanks, he thought of gatherings at the temple, the only legitimate place of sacrifice and worship. With the coming of the new covenant, there is no longer a single sanctuary, and so the offering of todah is no longer confined to a single location. Eucharist – the Christian todah ritual – can be celebrated wherever saints (hagioi) gather to constitute a holy space.

More radically, the New Testament extends the categories of temple worship to encompass the whole life of the Christian and the Christian community. Not only in gathered assemblies, but at every moment and in every place, Christians are to present their bodies as living sacrifices, “acceptable to God” as “logiken latreia,” a “reasonable worship” (Rom 12:1).

Hebrews concludes similarly, not with an elimination of cult but an expansion of the cult of thanksgiving (exomen charin, Heb 12:28) to become an “acceptable service” (latreuo) that includes brotherly love, hospitality, visitation of prisoners, contentment, sacrifices of praise along with sacrifices of sharing goods (13:1-3, 5, 16-17). In place of temple liturgy, Christians are called to a liturgy of life. The world has become a temple court, an altar for Christian lives of sacrifice.

This is the theological background for Paul’s exhortation, “in everything give thanks” (1 Thess 5:18). In terms of the Hebrew Bible, Paul urges the churches to carry out a continuous (Heb. tamid) todah, a never-ending peace offering that encompasses the whole of life. This is what the result of being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) who unites us to the continuous sacrifice of thanksgiving that the Son offers to the Father. Through continuous thanks, the church is a community of continuous festivity.

What does a continuous liturgy of thanks look like? David W. Pao is certainly correct that it involves “God-centeredness.” If we let the todah-Eucharistic patterns guide us, we can say more.[2]

I have said that Paul treats the world as a temple in which Christians carry out a continuous Eucharistic liturgy. It is more accurate to say that Christians consecrate the world as temple by continuing the Eucharistic liturgy beyond the time of assembly. Everything God created is good, Paul says, and is to be received with thanks, since it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer (1 Tim 4:4). Holy things belong to God. To be holy is to be claimed, and to consecrate anything is to lay that claim, God’s claim, on the sanctified thing.

In 1 Timothy, Paul is speaking about food, rebutting those who forbid Christians to eat unclean meats. Saints, Paul says, do not need to reject anything. Nothing God created is impure; no food is profane, provided we lay God’s claim on it by prayer, the word of God, and thanksgiving. Though holy, saints are not too holy to receive the world as food. But – crucially – this is not because foods are already holy. Rather, saints are holy ones who make holy, and thereby make all food suitable for consumption, fit to enter the temple of their Spirit-filled bodies.

What Paul says about food applies to everything that comes to hand: By prayer and thanksgiving, whatever we touch becomes as holy, as devoted to God’s use, as a utensil in Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Holy things for holy people, and we make things holy by thanks, prayer, and the word. As we live out a liturgy of continuous thanks, we sanctify the world.

By continuous acts of yadah, those united to the son of Judah, Jesus, live up to our identity as members of the royal tribe. Consecrating all things by thanksgiving is a priestly act, but has also a royal dimension. Consecration does not bring creation under our dominion but under God’s; it imposes his claim, not ours. Thanksgiving is a continuous coming of the rule of God; as we give thanks and devote more and more of the world to God’s use, his rule comes to realized expression throughout the world. At the same time, precisely because all things are Christ’s, they are also ours in him: “All things” are ours because we “belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor 3:22-23).[3] Giving thanks, we sanctify everything as God’s own, which our Father kindly deploys to serve us.

This is a portion of a paper written for a consultation on gratitude, joy, and complaint for the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, September 8-9, 2017.

 

[1] For details of the development of the Eucharistic prayer, see Louis Bouyer, Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989).

[2] Deep in the background here are James Jordan’s profound observations about the parallels between the Eucharistic rite and the pattern of creation in Genesis 1. See Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World.

[3] See Luther’s wonderful statement about the spiritual dominion of the Christian: “Our ordinary experience in life shows us that we are subjected to all, suffer many things, and even die. As a matter of fact, the more Christian a man is, the more evils, sufferings, and deaths he must endure, as we see in Christ the first-born prince himself, and in all his brethren, the saints. The power of which we speak is spiritual. It rules in the midst of enemies and is powerful in the midst of oppression. This means nothing else than that “power is made perfect in weakness” [II Cor. 12:9] and that in all things I can find profit toward salvation [Rom. 8:28], so that the cross and death itself are compelled to serve me and to work together with me for my salvation. This is a splendid privilege and hard to attain, a truly omnipotent power, a spiritual dominion in which there is nothing so good and nothing so evil but that it shall work together for good to me, if only I believe. Yes, since faith alone suffices for salvation, I need nothing except faith exercising the power and dominion of its own liberty. Lo, this is the inestimable power and liberty of Christians” (On the Freedom of the Christian).

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