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Make Me a Blessing: Benedictions Are More Than Pious Wishes

It happened in a Christian Reformed Church one Sunday night during the intermission of a Calvin Seminary Choir program. As director of the choir, I had asked two of the seminarians to say a few words about their background and plans for ministry. First came Bruce Gritter—a young Canadian student, full of enthusiam. Then Gabriella Farkas spoke.

Gabriella, a minister in the Hungarian Reformed Church, is currently studying church education at Calvin Seminary. She brought greetings from her brothers and sisters in Hungary and thanked the Reformed people in America for their continuing and appreciated support.

Then it happened. Gabriella said, still reading carefully, "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace" (Num. 6:24-26).

There was a moment of uncertain silence. (I'm sure most members of that congregation had not heard those words outside the context of a regular worship service, and certainly not spoken by a woman.) Then the whole congregation burst into applause. It was a beautiful moment.

Traditional Blessings

Gabriella had, as we often say, "pronounced the benediction." We hardly ever see that word benediction outside the context of a worship service. We associate it with the end of the service, the time of parting. Actually, benediction is an old Latin word for "blessing." In many of our services, we still use the word "benediction." Maybe we should start speaking of a "final blessing" instead.

In weddings parents are sometimes asked if they "give their blessing" to the marriage of their daughter or son. What does that mean? When we "give our blessing," are we truly blessing our children? Or can only God give blessings?

The old Christian tradition of praying before a meal is based on an older Jewish tradition of table prayers. In our prayers we often ask for a blessing on the food. But the Jewish prayers recognized that the food before them was already a blessing from the Lord; in their prayers, the Jewish people blessed God for the food. The ancient Christian eucharistic prayer that is still reflected in our Lord's Supper forms is rooted in a Jewish table prayer that begins, "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, for you nourish us and the whole world with goodness, grace, kindness, and mercy. Blessed are you, Lord, for you nourish the universe." (Prayers of the Eucharist, Early and Reformed, Oxford, 1980).

In this issue of Reformed Worship, David Diephouse explores the ancient tradition of laying on of hands (p.4). In some ways, he is also exploring the meaning of giving blessings.

Biblical Blessings

In Scripture the idea of blessing is considerably broader and more vibrant than our conception of it today. Psalm 103 begins, "Bless the Lord, O my soul" in the King James as well as the rsv. That language is also retained in the new rsv or nrsv. In contrast, the niv text reads, "Praise the Lord, O my soul." The niv has made a choice, retaining the word "bless" for action on God's part, and using the word "praise" for our action toward God.

That choice can work in two directions. On the one hand, it can limit our understanding of a blessing as something that only God provides. On the other hand, knowing that the same word can be translated "praise" could significantly expand our understanding of what a blessing is and who may give a blessing.

Blessing is an act of power that can be related to a single event or to an ongoing state. The first thing God did for Adam and Eve in the garden was to bless them, giving them the power to "be fruitful... ."(Gen. 1:28). God's people experience the blessing of the Lord daily, and daily we return thanks and praise. At the culmination of time, John envisions a great multitude in heaven praising (blessing) God (Rev. 19:5).

So we return to God what we have been given. Claus Westermann, in Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church, speaks of the reciprocal nature of blessing:

In general, blessing must be reciprocal. Even inferiors may bless their superiors. By so doing, they confirm the blessing that the superior possesses and contribute to its increase (fob 31:19-20). Blessing includes the paying of respect (Judg. 5:24). Thus the king is blessed by his subjects and Yahiveh is blessed (i.e., praised by his people). Here we see how the two meanings of berekh, to bless and to praise, belong together.

The Grammar of Blessing

Bless is an active verb. It takes a subject and an object: something happens to someone. The common expressions "bless you" (after a sneeze) or the more recent breezy "God bless," therefore, are both incomplete. In the first, the implied subject is presumably God, who is being asked to provide a blessing without even being addressed. In the second, the blessing is not given to anyone or anything; the verb is treated as if it were passive, which is inappropriate to the very nature of blessing.

More on the grammar of blessings: The Aaronic blessing does not begin "The Lord blesses you," but "The Lord bless you." The verb is not indicative, but subjunctive, and could be expressed as well by saying, "May the Lord bless you." Adding the "may," however, makes the blessing sound rather weak, little more than a request. It detracts from the sense of proclamation, of "pronouncing" the blessing.

Several times in recent months I have heard ordained pastors say, "The Lord bless us," thus weakening the pronouncement and turning the blessing into a prayer. I've also started hearing too many "pious wishes" and commissioning statements that are not really blessings at all. "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord" is more a command than a blessing. Last Sunday I heard, "Remember, God loves you. Go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit." A reminder was followed by a commission, but the blessing was absent. God's people need the comfort of God's blessing.

The word "bless" need not always be present in a blessing. For example, Paul concludes his first letter to the Thessalonians with these words: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." I also heard recently from a minister, "The grace of God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit is with you all." His choice was deliberate. Rather than praying for a blessing, he wanted to proclaim one. So he stated it as strongly as he could—not with the subjunctive, but with the indicative verb form.

Three points in historic Reformed liturgy (other than the sermon) have been reserved for ordained ministers: the salutation, assurance of pardon (absolution), and benediction. Blessings all three! Traditional Reformed practice has made a distinction between ordained pastors who may "pronounce" a blessing and seminarians and other unordained worship leaders who may only pray for one. Rather than "The Lord bless you," the prayer for a blessing becomes "The Lord bless us."

In the Reformed tradition we technically do not talk about clergy and laity; we do not have a priesthood. We claim the priesthood of all believers: we are all ordained to Christian ministry by virtue of our baptism. Yet we also have a tradition of reserving certain liturgical functions for ordained leaders. Those distinctions have been blurred by the expanding role of unordained members in worship leadership.

Ministers, as ordained officebearers, have been officially designated to be the mouthpiece of Christ. Therefore, they may proclaim the blessing of the Lord. But what about seminarians and other unordained worship leaders? Since they lead worship with the official approval of the officebearers of that congregation, are they not in effect ordained to lead that service? And may they not also proclaim the blessing of the Lord, especially when using the words of blessing given us in the Scriptures?

Contemporary changes in the practice of blessing show in microcosm what is a very large issue needing much more reflection in the church: the meaning of ordination.

A Book of Blessings

A recent book of blessings presents a challenge to our limited use of the word and may provide some new insights for Reformed worship. In the twentieth century, following the second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church is going through the same powerful move from Latin to the vernacular that Protestants went through in the sixteenth century. The Book of Blessings (Collegeville, Minnesota, The Liturgical Press, 1989. Hardcover, $29.95; study edition, paper, $19.95), completes the English translation and revision of Roman Catholic liturgy. It contains not only translations of the former De Benedictionibus, but also "additional proper blessings approved for use in the United States of America."

The Book of Blessings was introduced to me by a Roman Catholic member of the team that had worked on it. I was struck by its contents. It wouldn't have occured to me to give that title to the book. I would have chosen something like "Orders of Worship for Various Occasions" or "Special Services." Included are services of blessing for the sick, for those gathered at a meeting, and for the dedication (our typical approach; theirs would be blessing) of a new church. There are more: services of blessing for parents before childbirth or after a miscarriage, for a person suffering from addiction, for the victim of a crime. There are even services for the blessing of animals, of fields and flocks, and of seeds at planting time; services for athletic contests and a host of other events—over seventy in all. We included two in this issue of R W (see pp. 38-39).

Throughout the book the Scriptures are appropriate and the prayers are beautiful. The pastoral sensitivity shines through on every page.

The Book of Blessings also distinguishes between a final blessing by the priest "May almighty God bless you…") and a blessing by a layperson ("May God bless us…").

Perhaps you, like me, really look forward to the final blessing in every service. That is the time when God speaks his reassuring words of power, when he promises us that he will be with us and will sustain us. When the minister raises his hands, we receive, long distance as it were, the laying on of hands. And we know that the Holy Spirit will grant us the power that is needed to make us a blessing.