Christmas 2, 2 Jan 22
When I was at university there was a priest who would often say Grace before the meals at one of the neighbouring colleges. He was a very kind guy but he thought it comical to give slightly informal prayers before meals, in part I suspect a rebelling against the otherwise quite formal occasions as we stood behind our chairs in gowns and smart attire. The supposedly comical graces really annoyed me. I give you one example: “Lord bless this bunch as they munch their lunch. Rub a dub dub dub thanks for the grub.” I was always rolled my eyes when I was meant to be thanking God, as you can probably picture.
Let’s think about blessings today. To bless something or someone is a tricky concept and yet it is a phrase we’re remarkably familiar with in the Christian Church. What does it mean? Well, the origin of the English word is perhaps “blood,” meaning something is consecrated by blood. In the Latin, “benedicere“ adds a sense of speaking well of something. Both these are good concepts to hold on to as we think what blessing is: setting something aside for God and speaking well of it.
Our first reading is from the letter to the Ephesians - apologies for the typo on the Mass Sheet, it’s not Colossians. It begins with a beautiful canticle, poetical and possibly even sung originally. “Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of Heaven in Christ.” Three times the same word - to bless - is used to articulate (1) our desire for what should happen to God (2) what God does to us and (3) what is given to us. Let’s look at each in term.
First, we want to bless God. At Masses when a hymn is not sung at the Offertory, we say together the Offertory Prayers over the bread and wine to be offered, both of which begin, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation.” It’s based on a form of Jewish prayer which we see often in the Psalms, for example: “Bless the Lord, all my soul; and not forget not all His benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,” (Psalm 103:1-2).
When we bless God, we are not adding anything to Him. We can add nothing to His glory, which is limitless and beyond our reckoning. When we bless God we are recognising that He is holy. It’s a simple truth which in the way Christians speak about God and how we behave during worship it is evident we have forgotten. It is absolutely true that God has come down to earth and that Jesus has become our brother but this has sometimes meant we forget He is still beyond our comprehension. His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). Who can understand God and His wisdom Isaiah wondered? (Isaiah 40:13). One simple, ancient and universal prayer we might make our own is “Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.”
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we articulate in other ways that we want God to be blessed: “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” This is to bless God. We know that this is how God is treated in Heaven through the worship offered to Him. Hence in the last book of the Bible, the Revelation to St John, we hear the description of the end of the world and of the universal worship of God. And what do the heavenly cry out? “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever. Amen.” (Apocalypse 7:12). When we worship God we are according Him what is His due because of who He is: we offer Him ourselves, nothing less will do. Thus do we bless His holy name.
This leads us to the second sense of blessing which we see in Ephesians 1: what God does to us. After creating us in the first chapter of Genesis we’re told, “God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it,” (1:28). This is perhaps the way in which the word is most often used. We speak of how God has blessed us, given us blessings, we sing the hymn some times, "Count your blessings, name them one by one.” In Deuteronomy 28:1-8 these blessings are rewards for obedience and are generally material things concerning wealth, food, land and family.
Paul in writing to the Ephesians reveals Himself to be firmly in the New Covenant for the blessings he writes of are “spiritual blessings of Heaven in Christ.” The translation would be better “Heavenly places” rather than “Heaven” as it gives us a sense of the vast expanse of the world in which God is enthroned and in which He reigns. The blessing we receive is “to make us praise the glory of God’s grace.” In other words, the blessing we receive is the privilege of worshiping God in a way the rest of creation cannot dream of. This verse stands as a warning against seeing the blessings of God as some materialistic Amazon list of things, stuff, we’ve asked for and received.
The third sense of the word ‘blessing’ we see in Ephesians 1 is that which we share with each other. Our culture of saying ‘Bless you’ after someone has sneezed is a small example of this. It arises from a superstition that the devil was going to grab your soul and therefore you needed protecting - and this arises from pre-Covid days!
At the end of Mass it has long been the practise of the bishop or priest to bless the people of God. This originates from the Old Testament in the book of Numbers. Here God bids Moses tell Aaron and his sons that they should bless the Israelites: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you,” (Numbers 6:23-25). It’s an ancient part of the faith because it predates the priesthood being given to the sons of Levi. It is also the tradition that heads of household can do this: think of the hullabaloo around Isaac blessing Jacob and Esau in Genesis 28. This is what we do today when we pray before meals at home, calling down a blessing without a priest there knowing we are all called to share this blessing of God. And no, they shouldn’t be comical graces!
And so it’s not just individuals who are blessed. We see first and foremost the Temple in Jerusalem and those things contained therein being blessed, made ready for service. When we read what happened in preparation for the building of that Temple in I Kings we are perhaps surprised by how much detail is gone in to about the measurements of things and the material to be used. It sounds a bit dull but it shows how God has a clear idea of how this is to be; what its purpose is. How its symbolism prepares people for Christ, whose Body is the new Temple. Solomon begins the prayer of dedication: “Blessed be the Lord, who has given rest to His people Israel according to all that He has promised,” (I Kings 8:56). When the prayer is finished God descends and fills the Temple and the Chronicler, somewhat wondrously, says all the priests couldn’t fit in the Temple because there was so much of God in there (II Chronicles 7:2).
At the Masses on Thursday, the Feast of the Epiphany - do be at one of them - we shall be given chalk to take home, which itself will have been blessed, and we are then invited to go home and have printed over our door frames the names of the Wise Men, Casper, Melchior and Balthasar, or at least their initials C M B. The tradition builds on the passage of Scripture where we are told the Wise Men go home via a different route (St Matthew 2:12), and perhaps they passed this way, having seen Christ whose birth we celebrate. As we bless our home, we’re invited to consider how it features in God’s plan for us and we thank God for making His home among us in the Christmas Season.
Brothers and sisters, how can we not bless God who has sent His Son, the Word made Flesh? As we heard in our Gospel today, “He was coming into the world. He was in the world that had its being through Him.“ This world is the one God created as the stage on which the great drama of human life and our salvation would be worked out. As we celebrate next Sunday the Baptism of the Lord, we realise that when God first formed water at the beginning of time He knew it would be the means by which He would raise up our fallen nature through Baptism.
The opening verses of John’s Gospel is very clear that there is light and darkness in the world. “The Word was the true light … a light that darkness could not overpower.” Of old there was a tradition of cursing individuals and things being in direct opposition to blessing them. But neither blessing nor cursing has any power or magic attached to it. There is God and there is the absence of God, we’re free to choose. Blessing is part of the virtue of Hope, revealing God’s purposes for someone and something and knowing them to be good. May we be a people seeking to bless God all our days for all the spiritual blessings He gives to us and may these blessings be shared in our Church family and throughout the world. Amen.