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A reflection on the book of blessings
Lawrence E. Frizzell
Blessing in the Bible Tradition
In the midst of life's ambiguities, the biblical tradition proclaimed the goodness of creation, because of its origin and purpose. In the hymn that opens the Bible, the refrain "God saw that it was good" (Gen.1:4,12,18,21,31) refutes the dismal views of the world and its creatures that underlie pagan dualism. The "descending blessing" which constitutes the gift of life from God celebrates the mystery whereby creatures reproduce (Gen.1:22,28) and human beings take the responsibilities of stewardship as partners with the Creator (I). Life unfolds in the context of time and space, so the divine blessing sets apart the sabbath (Gen.2:2) and consecrated places for people to learn that the fullness of life is communion with the living God.
Gratitude for the manifold gifts of the natural and spiritual orders led the ancient Hebrews to offer an "ascending blessing" to God. This prayer gave thanks for the gifts and praise to the divine Giver. It provided the structure for the community and its members to express the various facets of their relation with God. The blessing, linked to the act of adoration, preceded in importance prayers of petition and complaint, confession of sins and lament. After the tabernacle and the Temple became the focus of their experience of God, the Hebrews would rejoice in their privilege to "lift up their hands toward the sanctuary and bless the Lord". Then they would plead for the continuation of God's blessing on them and all creation (see Ps.I34:2-3) (2). Later, even in the midst of personal trial and national catastrophe, they would make Job's prayer their own: "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the Name of the LORD " (Job 1:21). The advice of Tobit to his son represented the piety of the Second Temple period. "At all times bless the Lord God and ask him to make all your paths straight and to grant success to all your endeavours and plans" (Tobit 4:19).
Following the example and instruction of Jesus, the early Christians brought the practices of Jewish prayer into their worship in its daily and weekly rhythms. They learned as well to integrate the ascending blessing into the fabric of their daily lives. The blessings and doxologies in the epistles of St.Paul indicate how naturally he moved into prayer at the occasions of acknowledging aspects of the divine mystery (see Romans 1:25; 9:5; 11:36 etc.).
For Christians, all the wonders of creation are seen in a new light through the coming of Jesus and the consummation of his work in his death and resurrection. All of God the Father's blessings on creation come to their fullness in him as the Messiah; his Eucharist, patterned after the Passover Meal, celebrates the thanks-and-praise that Christians echo down through the centuries. "Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Col. 3:17). Although new blessings (such as the prayer of Zechariah in Luke 1:68-79) became part of the Church's worship, the psalms, the hymn of the three youths and other canticles were borrowed from the riches of the Jewish liturgy (3).
The Book of Blessings
The Second Vatican Council emphasized the centrality of the Eucharist and the other sacraments to the Church's life. People are sanctified through words and signs so that they can join with Christ, the eternal high priest, in blessing God the Father in the Holy Spirit (see The Constitution on the sacred Liturgy 7,10,59). Although the seven sadfainents correspond to the great moments of Mahan Mistence, from birth to adult vocation, to Sickness and death, they do not exhaust the Decagons for expressing gratitude for divine gifts and the need for God's protective presence in our lives.
Throughout the centuries prayers and ceremonies accompanied the faithful along the various stages of their pilgrimage toward the heavenly Jerusalem. Collections of these texts were compiled as the best prayers of each generation were incorporated into the general treasury of the Church. The Roman Ritual constituted a handy Latin compendium of blessings for the priest to use in the service of his flock. In 1984 the Congregation for Divine worship published the Liber de Benedictionibus from which an English version was completed in 1989 (4).
This substantial volume is divided into six major sections:
I. Blessings directly pertaining to persons.
II. Blessings related to building and to various forms of human activity.
III. Blessings of objects... for use in churches.
IV. Blessings of objects meant to foster the devotion of the Christian people.
V. Blessings related to feasts and seasons.
VI. Blessings for various needs and occasions.
A "general introduction" sketches the importance of blessings in the history of salvation and in the life of the Church. The typical celebration of the blessing is described so that its structure will be understood. The ceremony begins with the proclamation of God's Word "to ensure that the blessing is a genuine sacred sign"(5). From the Bible we recognize the intimate bond between word, thing and event, all conveyed by the Hebrew term dabhar. Christians should grasp the link between word and sign or gesture and recognize that God acts in their lives as in the history of Israel and in the early Church (see Vatican II Constitution on Divine Revelation #2). After a prayerful response to the reading by a psalm or hymn and a brief homily, the community praises God's goodness and implores divine help. The blessing formula itself is part of this recognition of divine mercy and creaturely need. The signs and symbols chosen by the Church to complement the words of prayer serve a pedagogical purpose. They are reminders of the saving acts of God and the deeds of Christ, drawing attention to the sacraments of the Church which flow from the Paschal Mystery of Christ's death and resurrection. Various gestures appeal to our sight, imposition of hands and the sign of the cross are tactical experiences, and incense reminds us of the prayer of the saints ascending to God in an odour of sweetness (Apoc. 8:3; Exod. 40:27). The taste of special foods, so prominent in Jewish practices (see Deut . 8:8 for the seven species and Exod. 12:8 for the Passover meal), varies according to regional custom among Christians. In any case, both faith experiences engage all the senses but give pride of place to the proclamation of God's Word. The listening experience is reinforced by engaging the other senses.
The Church has issued a caution against merely mechanical practices that are not interpreted orally. "The outward signs of blessings, and particularly the sign of the cross, are themselves forms of preaching the Gospel and of expressing faith. But to ensure active participation in the celebration and to guard against any danger of superstition, it is ordinarily not permissible to impart the blessing of any article or place merely through a sign of blessing and without either the Word of God or any sort of prayer being spoken" (6). The danger of misplaced emphasis is a constant problem in religion. The Greek name "phylactery" (amulet) for tefillin indicates, for example, that some (perhaps Gentiles) attributed special powers to these ancient repositories for sacred texts. While it is extremely important to nourish the human need for symbols and gestures in worship, leaders of spiritual communities must be on guard constantly against popular attribution of special powers to external signs themselves. Just as good king Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent Nehushtan which Moses had made (2 Kings 18:4; Numbers 21:9), so religious leaders in every age must purify the faith of their communities. The riches of the Biblical tradition integrated into the ceremonies and rituals of this Book of Blessings should draw the Catholic faithful into an ever deeper appreciation of God's love and guidance in their lives.
Contacts with Jewish Practices
Soon after the Second Vatican Council, the simplification of the Offertory in the Eucharist of the Roman Rite drew on the Jewish meal prayers for the pattern of presenting the bread and wine.
"Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life... We have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink".
Are there other examples of such an influence? The options in the Book of Blessings for prayers before and after meals draw upon the traditions of the Church and conform to the festive or penitential character of the given day or liturgical season. Concern for the poor and a sense of the spiritual dimensions of sharing a meal are themes that are also prominent in Jewish instructions about meals but contacts between the traditions seem to derive from the earliest stages of Christianity. The familiar Catholic formula or a variant is repeated "Bless us, 0 Lord, and these your gifts, which we are about to receive from your goodness". Sometimes this invocation of a "descending blessing" is complemented by an act of thanks-and-praise. Frequently the hope for a gathering of all in the heavenly banquet elevates people's thoughts to the goal of life according to the divine plan. The thanksgiving after meals is invariably very brief. Here we have lost an aspect of our own heritage, precisely where the Jewish community maintains lengthy prayers.
The various orders of blessing for the married couple and their family respond to a great need in many societies. The bonds between parents and children should be rooted in the spiritual authority exercised by the couple. How many Christian parents exercise the prerogative of blessing their children? This Jewish practice is now explicitly recommended. "Christian parents wish to bestow (the Lord's) blessing on their own children and the practice of a blessing by parents is a tradition treasured by many peoples" (7).
Integration of parental blessings into daily life in the home would stress both the awesome responsibility of parenthood to reflect the divine image and the virtue of obedience among children. Both dimensions of family love are sorely needed in our time. If Jews or Christians have succumbed to the pressures of their society, they might look again at the biblical vision of parenthood. (8)
Travel is so much a part of our lives that many fail to think of the beginning and end of a journey as occasions for prayer. The blessing of travelers suggests readings from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (the Shema) or Luke 3:3-6 (quoting Isaiah 40:1-5), and then Psalm 23, 25 or 91 is recited. Divine protection in the journeys of Abraham and of the Israelites in the Exodus provides assurance that God will hear our petition for protection. Hospitality to strangers and the plight of the homeless are themes in the prayer that may open the eyes of thetraveler to the moral challenges involved in giving to and receiving from others. The Jewish "prayer of the road" asks for deliverance from "every lurking enemy and danger". The role of angels is noted by references to Jacob (Genesis 32:2-3) and the Exodus (Ex. 23:20); Psalm 91 and the priestly blessing (Num. 6:24-26) invoke divine protection upon the Jewish traveler.
Certainly it would be instructive to compare details of these and other prayers from the two traditions (9). The similarities would most likely derive from the common heritage of the Bible and ancient Jewish liturgy. As with the celebration of the sacraments, these official prayers of the Catholic Church have new elements and the emphasis on a variety of readings from the Scripture is an important innovation. The prayers of communities imbued with the riches of God's Word will certainly enhance the faith of their members and draw out their potential for transformation of self and the world around them.
* Rev. Lawrence Frizzell D. Phil. is a priest of the Archdiocese of Edmonton, Canada. He teaches in the Department of Judeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, USA and is a member of the Editorial Board of SIDIC.
(1) See my article "Humanity and Nature according to the Jewish Scriptures", SIDIC Vol. 22 ( w 3, 1989) pp. 5-6.
(2) See my article "The Priestly Blessing and the Gift of Peace" SIDIC Vol. 21 (it 1, 1988), pp. 15-17.
(3) See my article "A Winn of Creation in Daniel", SID-IC Vol. XI, (# 3, 1978), pp. 8-13.
(4) Book of Blessings (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1989 p. 896).
(5) Op. cit. p. 27.
(6) Idem, p. 29.
(7) Idem p. 88. More examples of prayers for parents and other family members are found in a companion volume entitled Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers (Washington, DC, United States Catholic Converence, 1989).
(8) Of course we must be aware that a literal intepretation of passages like Proverbes 13:24 and 22:15 has wreaked havoc on generations of children. See Philip Gleven, Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse (New York: Random
(9) It is beyond the scope of this essay to study innovations and developments in the Conservative and Reform prayerbooks.