Words swirl around us all the time…spoken, written, sung…from every person, billboard, television, and internet site. Some of these words are important to us, things we want to know, and things we probably ought to know. Some of them are trash, hostile, condemning, and berating…words better neither heard nor read. And then there are those words that soothe our souls and bring joy to our hearts.
Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be God’s kingdom, now and forever, Amen.
These are the words with which we Episcopalians begin our weekly services of Holy Eucharist… acknowledging our devotion to God in three persons. These words anticipate that our very presence will indeed bless God and, likewise, bless us through liturgy, scripture, song, and the sharing of bread and wine that follows. We confess in these few words that we belong to our Creator; that we will hear, and hopefully heed, the words of our Savior; and that the Spirit will continue to enliven our lives as we reenter the world outside our doors at the end of the service. But it is the blessing at the end of each service that asks God to be with us as we depart. “They are a reminder that God, is in fact, with us. They are part longing, part speaking the truth we want to be true.” (Joanna Harader, Christian Century, August 3, 2016) These are necessary, powerful words affirming God’s part in our very lives.
We bless others because God first blessed us. The Creation story ( Genesis 1. -28 ) concludes with “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them…” The Hebrew word for blessing is berak, the word for benediction, berakah. Interestingly, the word berakah also means to kneel and by implication, to kneel before God in an act of adoration. The blessing, or benediction, at the end of each service provides us with a respite from all the other words which swirl around us on a daily basis. These words are God’s gift to take home with us…a practice of basking in the very love God pours out upon us.
Now there are those who deliberately ascribe blessings solely to a priest or minister. Not true. We simply get paid to do so (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, p. 195). Many people daily ask God’s blessing on the meals we will eat, which is, of course, received from God’s divine bounty. More of us still, can sneeze anywhere, anytime, only to have a dozen people, known and unknown, toss out, “Bless you!” Most of our children kneel to pray each night at bedtime saying, “Now I lay me down to sleep…God bless Mommy, Daddy, sister, brother, and every other person, animal, and toy that is important to their lives.” We are created to share our blessings.
One of the elements I have always admired in observant Jews is that they pray hundreds of blessings every day…there is a prayer for waking up, for using the bathroom, for the variety of foods they will eat, for setting out on a journey, even for seeing a comet! Every prayer of blessing, beraka, always begins with the same words:
Baruch Atah, Adonai Elohenu, Melech Ha-Olam…
Blessed are You, Lord God our God, King of the Universe…
the appropriate thanksgiving then appended. For good news: Blessed are You, Lord God our God, King of the Universe, who are good and beneficent. For bad news: Blessed are You, Lord God our God, King of the Universe, the Judge of Truth. For the wine with dinner: Blessed are You, Lord God our God, King of the Universe, for the fruit of your vines. You get the gist. It seems the Jewish faith contains a culture of recognition and deep gratitude for God’s holy presence in their lives.
Christians are certainly capable of doing likewise, though it seems prayers of blessing don’t as easily or automatically fall from our tongues. Episcopalians love to bless things via their liturgies…things that are near and dear to us: babies, marrying couples, the sick, the dying, the dearly departed, even homes. Each of these is as proper and momentous as the other.
Yet I wonder if perhaps we might learn from our Jewish friends to notice and bless all of life as it swirls about us. In the grocery store, “bless all that shop will be well-fed.” At the airport, bless the hundreds of others who fly wherever that day, that their travels may be safe and for the hopes within their visit—that each will echo God’s hopes. Blessing each day, the sun in the morning and the stars in the night, that their continued light will shine down upon us. Blessing each person whom we meet in this day. Blessings of every kind hold the possibility to not only brighten our days, but they will profoundly connect us to the lives of others as we share our blessings.
Now like many clergy, I’ve always prefaced Eucharist with an invitation that all are welcome to come forward for communion or a blessing. A priest I know who did likewise was surprised at the altar rail one Sunday, as a longtime parishioner crossed his arms over his chest and asked for a blessing, rather than receiving the bread and wine. It had never crossed my friend’s mind that someone who regularly received communion would prefer a blessing. Another parishioner cleared the way for his new understanding when she said, “Communion is taking a part in Jesus himself, realizing he has cleansed me from sin and sorrow; but a blessing is like a big hug when I’m having a tough day or a difficult time emotionally. It is a physical feeling of laying hands on me, giving me warmth on a deep level of my soul.” Either way, Jesus welcomes us as we approach his table.
I grew up as a Lutheran then found the Episcopal Church while in college, thanks to a friend. As far as final benedictions go, I have long found hope and strength in the parting words of each. In the Lutheran church, I appreciated this blessing, first spoken by God to Moses, exhorting him, to bless Aaron and his sons, saying:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
And in the Episcopal Church, the blessing from Rite I, BCP, still stirs my soul.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding,
keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and
love of God and his Son Jesus Christ our Lord;
and the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
be among you and remain with you always.
There are many, many beautiful blessings for every season and every reason, each extolling the greatness and call of our God and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Yet my sense of blessing is that we have been blessed so that we might become a blessing for those around us. In our blessing of others, God comes to meet us—even when times are the most difficult. Surely these days, months of the presence of Covid -19, are the perfect opportunity to perfect our own sharing of God’s blessings.
May Christ be our new beginning,