“You brought us out of nothing into being, and when we had fallen away, You raised us up again.”

My dad’s family gathered in his parents’ kitchen, all 27 of us, for the Thanksgiving thanksgiving. Before my dad’s dad prayed, as he always does at these meals, my grandma spoke up. Papa would be having a procedure in a few weeks. Something’s come up, possible water on the brain. And everything’s gonna be okay, she insists. It’s gonna be fine, we’re sure of it. But please pray for us.

When in the next moment Papa prayed for the food, he couldn’t finish half the blessing before hunching over in tears. Big, heavy tears. And silence among all 26 of us. He snuffled, sighed his familiar conclusion (“…and us to thy service. Amen.”), and shuffled from the center of the room, irked that Grandma had mentioned the doctor’s appointment. “She knows that always gets me,” he grunted.

My grandmother never cries, and my grandfather often does, especially when he gives thanks for the Crucifixion in family prayers. If he can choke back the tears, Grandma rubs his back and says, “You did good,” after his “Aw-men.” But during her announcement, even she stumbled over her words, which certainly unsettled all of us.

My dad’s parents got married young (she was 16, he was 18) and had their first child two years later. They have always been active and vibrant—they even volunteer in their town Senior Center in order to share that verve with other retirees, who often fall into depression through isolation and inertia. My grandparents, especially my grandmother, maintain a wide social web, not least among their children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren, who all congregate at their house at Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, every year. I have always seen them as paragons of vitality—if not in body, always in spirit. (In a recent conversation, I discovered that other people’s abiding depression sincerely stumped my grandma, not because she lacks empathy, but because she can’t help but believe the light always follows darkness.) To now see both of them, even my grandmother in her more candid moments, weakening and admitting it, has been a weighty chill. The winter sun gives fainter light, in faster fading slits of day. This season is an apt time to see the shadow of death.

We gathered again for Christmas last month. No report of “the procedure” was offered. As we circled for the saying of grace this time, I nudged my mom for word of Papa’s results. “They said nothing needed to be done.”

Then Papa prayed, braving the whole thing, even the mention of the Atonement, without a tear. And we ate.

‘Constellation – Uccello’ / Vija Celmins / Tate

When I started interning at my church, I really wanted to help serve communion. Of everything I would get to do in ministry, holding the cup of wine for people most enticed me. It’s a feeling I think Jesus shared when he told his disciples, “With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer.” It’s a weird thing, for sure, but beautiful.

The bread and wine matter to me for a lot of reasons. Besides the obvious theological meanings of the experience, it provides, I’ve found, a visceral opportunity to contemplate more personal concerns. Since the meal looks forward to the wedding feast of Revelation, and since it is such a corporeal act, I often think about eros and body image in relation to communion. When God-made-vulnerable in Christ makes himself still more vulnerable in a meal, I’m able to open up more, too, to consider some of my most intimate worries and wounds. In this recent season of holidays and family gatherings, I’ve seen this experience in yet another way.

I think a lot about how “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” Like the North American holiday, or like simple gratitude, expressed in conversations or in prayers. Like my Papa’s prayers. Sometimes, that thanks can’t help but spring up from the feeling of the moment, when things are bright. But in the gloom, thanksgiving is totally unnatural. It needs reminders, and habits, from a whole community. It needs memories of the good, even when that good seems gone.

Every Sunday, my minister recalls the Atonement for us, and we tell God thank you. And we pray, in the middle of pain, in the face of death, that God would make good on his promise, and give us life. And then we eat.