Bless us, O Lord: the gifts that we receive deserve attention from God. Even roller skates.
The woman held up a pair of roller skates. "Can you call the priest?" she asked me. "I want him to bless these." It was one of those moments when, as a parish secretary, I wanted to scream: Stop the church, I want to get off! Instead, I tried arguing the woman out of her request, pointing out how busy urban priests are--leading prayer, anointing the sick, preparing homilies, teaching, and administrating. What I wanted to say was: Please don't ask me to call Father for this. He's going to kill me for not getting rid of you.
Just then our theological roller derby was interrupted by the pastor himself. Without hesitating he blessed the skates with a wide sign of the cross and a light touch, asked for whom they were intended, and thanked the woman for coming in. She left in an air of triumph. Once she was gone, the pastor turned to me. "Don't ever do that to people," he chided. "We bless everything."
It was my first lesson in pastoral care, and I never forgot it. It also made me curious about the Catholic blessing policy. Was there such a thing as an official position on blessing? What in tarnation do we think we're doing when we bless or ask for a blessing?
Moses gets clear instructions from God on how a blessing should go, at least: "The Lord bless and keep you! The Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!" If blessing means being kept, radiant, full of grace, and in God's good graces, it's certainly something we all want.
Growing up Catholic, I knew about blessing things for holy usage like Bibles, scapulars, rosaries, medals, and palms. Holy water waited at the back of the church for a self-blessing. The real presence of Jesus under the appearance of bread was up front in the tabernacle, the ultimate holy of holies.
There was also a sort of holiness-creep I was less sure about. Churches were consecrated places, but some parts of the church were holier than others, like the sanctuary. I wasn't allowed up beyond the communion rail unless I carried a can of Pledge and a dust cloth. Father was holy, from his blessing hands down to his socks. So were the Sisters who taught me. I was pretty sure Mom and Dad weren't holy in the same way. Or were they?
Things became holy by blessing them, right? Father had been ordained; a sacrament was a high form of blessing that made its subject very holy, like the water of baptism, the bread and wine of Eucharist, and the oil used for anointing. Since Mom and Dad had been married, which was a sacrament, wouldn't they be holy in the same way? A blessing is a blessing.
The roller skates, however, did me in. Once you blessed roller skates, all bets were off. Unless you were going to pray in them, it seemed out of bounds to make a secular thing sacred for no good reason. Yes, the woman had bought them for her granddaughter and wanted her to use them safely. But blessing skates seemed a giant step away from an act of consecration and into full-on magic. How does God "let his face shine on" a toy?
What does the church teach about blessing?
More than I bargained for. Blessing is a liturgical act involving gestures, touch, and words--although any one of those is sufficient for the act to take place. The purpose is to give expression to God's benevolence and generosity.
Benedictine scholar Mary Collins notes that a blessing doesn't "do" anything new. Rather, it recalls that God has already blessed creation and made all things holy. While blessings may invoke God's favor, they are often an act of thanksgiving. Our Eucharist is the most perfect expression of this.
Catholicism offers official blessings in sacraments and other rites. But blessing is not the sole prerogative of the priest. Lay folk are encouraged to take on the work of blessing in ordinary contexts. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supplied the book Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers expressly for this purpose.
Church teaching describes three main theaters of blessing. The first is ecclesial--the churchy kind--reserved to ordained ministers. The most frequent ecclesial blessing is the one the assembly receives at the dismissal of every Mass.
Such blessings include the consecration of buildings and land used for holy purposes (cemeteries count here, as well as churches and retreat centers). The four fundamental pieces of liturgical furniture are blessed: altar, ambo (lectern), baptismal font, and president's chair. So are the stations of the cross, church bells, and just about everything short of the worship aids. People are blessed, too: the whole assembly, missionaries, pilgrims, those involved in liturgical ministries, catechists and catechumens.
The second kind of blessing acknowledges the goodness of creation. This is the kind Franciscans are famous for: Many churches have a blessing of animals on the feast of St. Francis. At our parish the pastor encouraged kids without pets to bring stuffed animals for the blessing. Each October 4 the church was crawling with dogs and cats, birds, reptiles, teddy bears, and one truculent pony in urgent need of grace. Of course, this category of blessing is also invoked upon fields, harvests, and food at mealtime.
The third type of blessing involves the social aspect of our lives. Some parents bless their children as they tuck them in at night. We bless married couples on their anniversaries and lawyers at the annual Red Mass. Human work gets blessed on Labor Day weekend, soldiers living and deceased on Memorial Day, parochial schools every September.
All of this blessing activity has strong biblical roots. The creation story introduces blessing as a communication of divine life. Specifically, God's blessing makes the creatures fertile, a sort of multiplication of possibilities inside each living thing.
The next big blessing is the seven-fold consecration of Abraham in Genesis 12. It's surely another fertility blessing, but also more than that. The seventh phrase promises: "All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you." That Abraham would not simply be blessed himself but transmit blessing to the whole world is a radical proposition. The contagion of the Abrahamic blessing is not lost on Peter or Paul, both of whom exploit this teaching to extend the gospel to Gentiles in the Acts of the Apostles.
Patriarchs throughout the Hebrew story continue to bless their sons, particularly their firstborn. This transmission of the holy goods is so valued, it becomes a central point of contention between brothers Jacob and Esau. Eventually blessing becomes attached to the necessity to keep the law of Moses, a quid pro quo.
Once a blessing must be earned, the threat of being cursed for breaking the law cannot be far behind. Sets of ritual blessings and curses are found throughout scripture. But once we come to the gospels, we sense the shift.
"Bless those who curse you," Jesus tells his followers-transforming the quid pro quo of blessing forever. For the disciples of Jesus, even the evil intent of others must be redirected toward an expression of God's goodness.
If God is to be all in all, then everything must become a blessing. Father may have been right about those skates.
By Alice Camille, author of Animals of the Bible from A to Z, with illustrator Sarah Evelyn Showalter, and other titles available at alicecamille.com.
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|Date:||Dec 24, 2011|
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