Thursday, July 06, 2006

Blessings?

One of the more amusing clichés which has evolved in recent years is that now-ubiquitous sign-off now used by many a clergyman, whether in print or in person: “Blessings!” Most commonly the expression begins “Blessings on your . . .” To this is added a word fitting the occasion. So to a pastor one might say, “Blessings on your ministry,” or to a committee, “Blessings on your conference.” To a pastor about to preach, “Blessings on your message” is heard. Or often the word stands alone, as in correspondence, being a closing salutation.

Whence this came is anyone’s guess, but what this historian finds amusing is the fact that it’s so often used by the kinds of Lutheran clergy who at the same time hold tenaciously to an acute anti-Catholic bias. They won’t wear a chasuble or intone the Introit, because that’s Catholic, but they’ll dispense blessings more freely than the most Tridentine of priests!

Among traditional Roman Catholics, the blessing of the priest is eagerly to be sought, and taken quite seriously when obtained. People would approach a priest for no other reason than to ask a blessing on their children (though not, I might add, while kneeling beside their parents partaking in the Sacrament of the Altar). The Vatican magisterium has routinely taught that a solemn duty of the priest is to dispense blessings upon his people.

I am, to be sure, rather vaguely averse to the usage, but not because of this. If anything, the thought that if taken seriously this cliché might offend against the anti-Catholic bigotry in our midst (one of the last acceptable forms of bigotry left in current society) would lead me to find it more, rather than less, palatable! I think Lutheran ministers would do well to consider the dispensing of blessings to be a solemn duty they too ought to do. These can take the form of brief benedictions when meeting with the bereaved, the sick, the distressed, or anyone who comes to meet with them. It ought to be done with the laying on of hands and signing of the cross on the forehead (and perhaps even with chrismating oil, as St. James says). In fact, the thought sits comfortably with me that this is really what is going on at the confirmation ceremonies of our young. The young teens are simply receiving the blessings of their priest as they enter adulthood. We already treat Lutheran confirmations as a sacramental kind of thing, even though we insist that confirmation is not a sacrament. But we routinely have parties whose celebratory mood can rival that of any bar mizpah or quinceñera. These youngsters are simply debutantes of a kind. Fine. So we do it in church, give them the blessings of their pastors, and think those blessings sort of sacramental, in a way. Perhaps a fuller consideration of this would be a fit topic for another day.

Regarding blessings in general, let us take them more seriously than as the bland, vanilla blubbering which the term “blessings” has come to be. Taken as it currently is, I would submit that to those who hear it, at best it generally communicates absolutely nothing, and at worst it gives an indication the one saying it must be a very holy person, that he speaks such a holy word. The latter inference is of course particularly odious to faith, because it smacks of the worst kind of pharisaism.

Let Lutheran ministers take the dispensing of blessings to be a solemn duty, then: they were ordained to do this, certainly, as Jesus said, “He who hears you hears me.” But let them never think that this can as well be something they ought carelessly dispense, in effect attempting to raise the estimation of others as to the degree of their holiness.

Adapted from a 1999 article.

8 comments:

Pastor Beisel said...

I didn't know this until recently but the word "goodbye" actually is short for "God be with you." Perhaps it would be good to use the longer form of "Goodbye" instead of using the word "blessings" so flippantly.

Father Eckardt said...

Yes, "God be with you" can be helpful, for instance, to someone leaving a funeral. "Godspeed" is also, I think, a fitting thing to say to someone about to journey. Certainly better than the vague and ambiguous "blessings."

Rev. Benjamin Mayes said...

I've often wondered if it's inappropriate for laypeople to bless their pastors on the basis of Hebrews 7:7 "And without any contradiction that which is lesser is blessed by that which is better." This isn't to say that a pastor is morally better than a layman (though he ought to be an example to the flock), but to say that he's been given an office of higher duty and responsibility, much like a father's relation to the members of his family. And Hebrews' point is that father Abraham was blessed by Melchisedek, and therefore Melchisedek's office was "greater." What do you think?

Latif Haki Gaba said...

Once one thinks about it, we can actually see this sort of thing in several languages. Eg., "adieu" in French, is literally "to God," and thus has a very similar meaning as "goodbye." "Adios" in Spanish is another example. It is amazing when one really considers the influence of the Christian faith on so many languages. Getting back to the real sense of pedestrian statements like these might be one way to help get us away from the lay blessings so rampant. By the way, fr. Fritz, I've been meaning to tell you: "Blessings on your blogging."

Father Eckardt said...

I remember a day many years ago when David Scaer was to preach at our church, and several pastors were there as well. We were standing in the back waiting for the opening procession, and one pastor, with a knowing look and a wink in his eye, leaned over to Dr. Scaer and said, "Blessings on your message." He could scarcely keep his composure while we were processing down the aisle.

M.L. Anderson (Herr Doktor) said...

I am sympathetic to Fr. Mayes' remarks, and appropriately reproved -- it's true, I have afflicted my pastor with the proband behavior from time to time. It's hard to argue with the Scripturally-based, comparative rankings of Melchizedek and Abraham.

On the other hand, according to the bles... (oh, never mind) Evangelist, righteous and devout Simeon blessed the Holy Family (Lk 2:34).

I suppose the faux pas was meliorated a good deal by the concluding aside, which promised that the Virgin Mother's heart would be pierced (v. 35).

I enjoy this blog very much. Keep up the good work!

Oh. If you don't wish to entertain this as a "blessing," then by all means consider it perfunctory, like good manners or something.

Nota bene: My dictionary tells me that "blessing" is derived from the Old English "bletsian," in turn springing forth from the root "blod," or blood. Hmmm...

Father Eckardt said...

Well now that last little note was an interesting one. So blessings come from blood. Indeed even the Aaronic blessing springs from the blood of Christ, which is why the arms of the one blessing are to be raised in cruciform style as the blessing is given.

Father Hollywood said...

I realize this post is delinquent, I had meant to chime in earlier. A benefit of living in a heavily Roman Catholic area is that people seek out the blessins of the clergy. They "get" just what you're saying about the priestly blessing and the authority given to Christ's ministers.

Strangers will come up to me and ask me to pray for them and bless them - even with my wife and son in tow (obviously, I'm not a Roman priest).

This happens even more frequently when I'm in a cassock. To those who think the "adiaphora" of clerical garb is useless, or even worse than that, negative - you need to put on a cassock and stroll around the neighborhood.

Big guys with tattoos and little old ladies will come to you with pained looks on their faces and ask you to give them the blessing of the Lord Jesus - whom they know you represent and in Whose stead you stead.

That's evangelism without a program, slogan, balloons, or even the letters "TM" in fine print.