The Book of Blessings: Sacramental Imagination
"...A sacramental imagination animates Catholic sacraments for it enables us to experience in these signs a God who acts to save us..."
"...Blessings are signs that have God's word as their basis and whose spiritual effects are achieved through the Church's intercession..."
'Sacramental Imagination'. It is not often that we find these two words used together. The expression recognises that we see and understand the world as a sign, a sign open to grace, God's grace incarnate in things, actions and words. The Word was made flesh. Christ's Incarnation brings us to see the world with new eyes. A sacramental imagination shows us the finite world as the bearer of the infinite.
A sacramental imagination animates Catholic sacraments for it enables us to experience in these signs a God who acts to save us. The sacramental imagination is also at work when we celebrate blessings. Whether it be the blessing of a wheat crop, mother or seismograph, the people, things and events we bless become an opportunity to praise God for creation and to invoke the protection of God's mercy upon our world. A blessing is a ritual recognition of God's providence.
Since the Apostolic Tradition at the beginning of the third century, the church has gathered into collections the blessings it has used during its prayer. Sometimes blessings are a part of the liturgy itself (for example, the blessing of the holy oils); sometimes they are independent rites. The latest official collection of blessings is De Benedictionibus (1984) translated as the Book of Blessings (1989).
Those who have never heard of it are not alone. At a recent workshop entitled (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) 'The New Book of Blessings', some participants simply came along because they had 'Never heard of it before!' In its nearly thirty years of life, it has not featured on any church best-seller list.
The 1984 edition left it up to local bishops’ conferences to do what has always been done in the history of this book, that is, to localise it and adapt it (BB 39). Some have been able to do this, others have not.
Predating the Book of Blessings by three years is a Canadian resource, A Book of Blessing. Australia also had a project at the time to produce a local collection of blessings. Unfortunately, this was abandoned when the official Latin book was translated by ICEL and published in the USA. We simply adopted for use in Australia the USA version. It is a good exemplar of what localisation and adaptation can produce, adding 42 new blessings (for a birthday, a victim of crime, a parish hall, a Christmas tree...) It is a pity however that we have not developed our own local collection.
Blessings: a Ministry Entrusted to the Church
The general introductions in our liturgical books provide succinct and vital keys to understanding what the various liturgical rites are all about. The Book of Blessings is no exception. Its General Introduction contains a theological presentation of blessing which showcases the teaching of Vatican II. It begins by summarising and recapturing the biblical heritage of blessings in the history of salvation. It reminds us that God is the source of all blessing: “[God] who is all good has made all things good, so that he might fill his creatures with blessings and, even after the Fall, continue his blessings as a sign of merciful love” (BB 1).
Here we are clearly in a descending perspective of blessing. But 'blessing' has a double direction, towards God and towards creatures. It goes toward God in praise and thanksgiving for the blessing bestowed by God. It is in this sense that people are said to bless God.
There is a constant movement within this double perspective. “The God from who all blessings flow favoured many persons (such as the patriarchs, kings, priests, Levites, parents) by allowing them to offer blessings in praise of his name and to invoke his name, so that other persons or the works of creation would be showered with divine blessings” (BB 6). God bestows blessing, and then ministers bless God in praise and thanksgiving, in reverent worship and service.
Whoever blesses others in God's name invokes divine help upon them.
This double understanding of blessing evokes the whole tradition of the Berakah prayer: Blessed are you Lord God of all creation... It provides the fundamental pattern upon which all other blessings are based. “Blessings therefore refer first and foremost to God, whose majesty and goodness they extol, and, since they indicate the communication of God's favour, they also extol human beings whom he governs and in his providence protects. Further, blessings apply to other created things through which, in their abundance and variety, God blesses human beings” (BB 7).
Having summarised the biblical teaching on blessings, the General Introduction then places them into the context of the life of the Church. The double movement of blessing is seen in the double end towards which all the Church's activity is directed: human sanctification and the glorification of God. Through its many forms of blessing, the Church encourages us to praise God, implore divine protection and mercy, and pray that God will grant the favours we ask (BB 9).
Blessings are signs that have God's word as their basis and whose spiritual effects are achieved through the Church's intercession. “They are therefore meant to declare and make manifest the neuness of life in Christ that has its origin and growth in the sacraments of the New Covenant” (BB 10). Blessings are for people. When the Church blesses objects or places, it is primarily in view of the people who use them. Thus our theology of blessing is not a quasi-magical concept of ritual that would attribute particular virtue to objects independently of the prayer of the Church and the right dispositions of the people concerned.
The Liturgical Form of Blessings
Blessings belong within the framework of the prayer of the Church. “Blessings are part of the liturgy of the Church therefore their communal celebration is in some cases obligatory but in all cases more in accord with the character of liturgical prayer” (BB 16). In most cases a communal celebration is to be preferred, with a full complement of ministries, and the active, conscious and easy participation by those present (BB 24).
Central to the form of each blessing is the reading of the Word of God. The typical structure of a blessing “consists of two parts: first, the proclamation of the word of God, and second, the praise of God's goodness and the petition for God’s help” (BB 20). The Word proclaimed gives meaning and effectiveness to the blessing sign. It provides the basis for introductory remarks and the instruction or exhortation. Sometimes there may be a full Liturgy of the Word with more than one reading, a psalm, silence and song.
The prayer of blessing which follows both praises God and implores devine help. The blessing formulary as the Church's prayer may be supported by prayers of intercession. Usually it is also accompanied by an outward sign: “the outstretching, raising, or joining of the hands, the laying on of hands, the sign of the cross, sprinkling with holy water, and intercession” (BB 26).
These outward signs are seen to be forms of preaching the Gospel and expressions of faith. Some blessings which are more solemn and which involve the entire diocese or parish are reserved to the bishop or priest. But laypeople may also frequently celebrate blessings. “Other laymen and lay women, in virtue of the universal priesthood, a dignity they possess because of their baptism and confirmation, may celebrate certain blessings...” (BB 18d). For example, parents bless their children, and catechists or other ministers may bless in connection with their appointed role. The person who presides should keep in mind that they represent the Church. Lay ministry and leadership contribute to realigning blessing in its ascending and descending movements. “Although a human being pronounces the blessing, it becomes clear that it does not have a merely human source but is the longed for bestowal of sanctification and divine favour.” (BB 17).
Adapted from an article that first appeared in Liturgy News.
Bishop Patrick O’Reagan