BOW your heads and pray for God’s blessing: With these words the deacon or priest alerts us that not oniy is the Mass at an end but we are about to receive something we very much need as we return to the world we are meant to evangelize.
Just how important this gift really is is demonstrated in an anecdote about the arrest of Pope Vigilius on the Feast of Saint Cecilia in 538. He had just finished distributing communion when an envoy of the emperor arrived and took him into custody with the purpose of sending him to Constantinople. Determined not to be left behind without receiving the final blessing, his flock followed hun to the ship waiting to send him into exile and there, at dockside, finally received what they valued so highly.
This account should give us pause. Did they know something that we don’t? What exactly is being given to us when the priest delivers his final blessing? Is there more to it than simply a ritualized form of leave taking — an elegant way of saying “have a nice day”?
The gift of life
A blessing (as understood in ancient Israel) was, above all else, the gift of life. Resident in each soul, our earliest ancestors in the faith believed, is a God-bestowed power that allows one to thrive physically and spiritually — to live a good life. The primordial blessing is given hy the Creator to the first man and woman: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing...” (Gn 1: 28). And so the person who was blessed had a tent full of children, pastures full of sheep, fields full of grain, a mind filled with wisdom, and a heart filled with gratitude.
God promised Abraham not only a son from his long-barren wife, but a future fruitfulness as well; for from this one son will spring as many descendants as there are stars in the sky, a land for them to inhabit and, most wonderful of all, the power to be a source of blessing for future generations — for “all the families of the earth” (Gn 12: 1-3).
Transfer of vital power
Blessings moved “vertically” from God to man and back again from man to God, as well as “horizontally,” wherein (as one Bible scholar puts it) one person gives to another “something of his own soul.” Blessings were offered at cultic occasions, given as greetings and farewells, including the final farewell from the deathbed.
This ability to thrive — to give and receive life — was passed down from father to son in the patriarchal blessing and, once given, could never be taken back. So desirable was this transfer of vital power it led Rebecca and her son Jacob into the sins of deception and theft. Thus first-born Esau is left bereft by this betrayal, and only years later does he receive back from Jacob the bounty that came from Isaac’s blessing — and then only because Jacob had first wrested a harder and better blessing from a mysterious stranger on the bank of the Jabbock.
A shower ot graces
This tradition of blessing is continued in the Mass in both a simple and solemn form and dates back at least as far as the third century. The priest may simply bless us in the name (i.e., in the power) of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; or he may, especially for important times in the liturgical calendar, invoke a solemn form of blessing. These particularly beautiful blessings (like one given in Advent) invoke a shower of graces on our behalf, all of which culminate in the hope for the very best that life has to offer: eternity. “You rejoice that our Redeemer came to live with us as man. When he comes again in glory, may he reward you with endless life.”
It is Mary who first recognizes that in Christ’s coming, every promised blessing to her ancestors finds its fulfillment. In response to the miracle of the Incarnation, she “blesses” God in her joy-filled Magnificat — a sign that the greatest-ever transfer of power from Soul to soul has begun.
What Mary kept secret in her heart, Christ speaks aloud: “I came that they may have life and have it abundanily” (Jn 10: 10). Jesus, God and man, is the source of every blessing, the power of Life Itself. In him all the families of the earth are blessed with God’s generous offer of salvation. Indeed, no blessing can surpass what Christ offers us in his body and blood and in the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, the blessing he promises to everyone who asks.
* * * * * * *
Robin Maas is Professor of Spirituality at the John Paul
II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Wash-
ington, DC. She is the founder of the Women’s Apostolate
to Youth in the Diocese of Arlington, the mother of three
grown children, and the grandmother of four.
PO Box 91, Spencerville, MD 20868
October 2002 (Pgs.5-7)
Volume 4, No. 8 www.magnificat.net
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