Gathered for Blessing; Going Forth to Bless Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
In certain regions of the United States and in several countries around the world, it is the custom, on this first day of the new year, for children of all ages to return to their familial home in order to be blessed by their parents. I was first introduced to this custom as a high school student in northernmost Maine, and was privileged to receive a blessing from a friend’s elderly father. No matter the distance, either geographical or emotional, no matter the history that may have been made during the past year, no matter what, the family would come together, both old members and those newly born, to begin the new year under the protection and grace of their parents’ benediction.
In a certain sense, the praying assembly is invited today to do likewise: to come together from near and far — the old and the young, the frail and the feeble as well as the hearty and the hale, so as to be blessed by a Creator, Redeemer God whose loving gaze on each of us is in itself a blessing (Numbers, first reading); by the same almighty, transcendent God whom we are privileged to call Abba, Daddy (Galatians, second reading); by a Mother who treasures each of her son’s adoptive brothers and sisters in her heart (Luke, Gospel). We come together to be blessed also by Jesus, whose name and saving mission we celebrate, by virtue of which we are called to live in peace, in justice and with great compassion for one another.
As we gather to experience these special blessings, we bring with us all the joys and sorrows of the year now past and ask for these to be blessed. We bring our hurts and regrets as well as our hopes and resolutions for the future. We bring work left undone, words left unsaid, wishes left unfulfilled and ask that God will bless all, heal all, make whole and holy all we are, all we have been, all we shall become by God’s blessed grace.
In asking God’s blessing at the outset of this new year, we resolve to entrust the future to God’s heart and to God’s will. We resolve to allow this trust in God and in God’s blessing to allay fear, to dispel hopelessness, to curtail despair. Knowing that all we shall do and say and attempt and become in the year ahead will lie securely under God’s loving benediction, perhaps we can resolve as well to bless our own as we go forth from this blessed assembly and return to our homes, our workplaces, our daily lives. Perhaps we who are renewed in the blessings of God can try once again to be blessings for one another. To that end and with the able inspiration afforded us by Fr. Edward Hays, we might pray the following words of blessing in our homes and over those we love as family and friends:
Lord our God, You whose home is in heaven and on earth, and in that undiscovered beyond, come and bless this house which is our home.
Surround this shelter with your Holy Spirit; encompass all its sides with the power of your protection so that no evil or harm will come near. May that divine blessing shield this home from destruction, storm, sickness and all that might bring evil to us who live within these walls.
(As all proceed through the home, a candle may be lighted in each of the rooms being blessed so that all the home is illuminated).
Blessed be this doorway. May all who come to it be treated with respect and kindness. May all our comings and goings be under the seal of God’s loving care.
Blessed be all the rooms of this home. May each of them be holy and filled with the spirit of happiness. May the dark powers never be given shelter within any of these rooms but banished as soon as they are recognized.
Blessed be this living room. May we truly live within it as people of peace. May prayer and playfulness never be strangers within its walls.
Blessed be this place where we shall eat. May all our meals be sacraments of the Presence of God as we are nourished at this altar-table. Blessed be the shrine of the kitchen. Blessed by the herbs and spices, the pots, the pans that prepare our meals. May the ill-seasonings of anger and bitterness never poison the meals prepared here.
Blessed be this bathroom. May the spirits of health and healing abide here and teach us to know and love our bodies.
Blessed be these bedrooms. Here we shall find rest, refreshment and renewal. May the spirit of love and affection touch all who shall use these rooms.
Let us pause now and pray in silence as each of us calls down the holy blessing of God upon this house, our home. (silent prayer)
Lord, our God, May you as Holy Father and Divine Mother lovingly care for all who live here. May your kingdom come in this home as we love and respect one another. May we always do your will by living in harmony and unity. May we never suffer from lack of bread, from a lack of all we need to nourish our family. May the spirit of pardon and forgiveness reside with us and be always ready to heal our divisions. May the spirits of mirth and laughter, hope and faith, playfulness and prayer, compassion and love be perpetual guests in our home.
May our door be always open to those in need, the neighbor as well as the stranger. May all who come to us find our door and our hearts open to them and their needs. May God’s holy presence shine forth here and bless all who live here and all who come to our door.
According to the Mishnah (a collection of rabbinic laws finally compiled circa 200 C.E.), this blessing, given by God to Moses in order to bless the Israelites, was prayed daily in the temple at Jerusalem. God’s blessing was thought to concern material as well as spiritual things and would have pertained to plentiful crops, fruitful herds, seasonable weather and military victories. That God would keep the people (v. 24) meant that they would be protected from meager harvests, barren herds, inclement weather and defeat in battle, for divine providence would see to their safety and well-being.
A shining face (v. 25), as John March (“Numbers,” The Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville, Tenn.: 1953) has pointed out, was a sign of pleasure and when it was turned upon another, it signified favor toward the other. To lift up the face or countenance (which is the literal translation of v. 26) is an expression that implies that no action could break the bonds between one person and another or between that person and God (see 2 Sam 2:22; Job 22:26). This is the permanent posture of God toward humankind, and such a posture constitutes the ground of peace where those upon whom God’s face shines are privileged to live.
When pronouncing this blessing upon the people, the priests, i.e. Aaron and sons, are said to invoke or place God’s name (v. 27) upon the Israelites. Since the name, in the ancient world, was regarded as identical with the person who bore it, this prayer implies that the very presence of God constitutes a constant blessing within which the Israelites are privileged to live and move and find the meaning of their existence.
Although the book of Numbers in its present form exhibits several layers of editing and was compiled at a date much later than the events it describes, it is believed that this blessing is quite ancient. In fact, portions of this blessing prayer appear on two small silver scroll amulets that were found in a tomb in Jerusalem from the seventh or sixth century B.C.E. The wearing of the name of God on an amulet was a sign that one acknowledged God’s authority and provenance over one’s life. Today, Christians wear the cross or crucifix with similar significance. As this new year begins, and as this blessing is prayed over the gathered assembly, those so blessed acknowledge once again God’s dominion over them and their lives. The ongoing challenge will lie in translating the significance of this blessing into daily lives that bear authentic witness to God’s constant prerogative in the lives and over the activities of those so blessed.
Galatians is a brief missive that has had a powerful impact upon the life and thinking of the church. The letter’s less than 150 verses continues to influence the faithful and their pastors regarding issues of freedom and belief, Gospel and law, spirit and flesh, ethics and licentiousness. As we 21st-century believers search Paul’s letter for inspiration and guidance, Charles Cousar (Galatians, John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky.: 1982) advises us to be mindful of two things: What did the text mean to its original recipients? What has this text come to mean to its various readers and interpreters through the centuries?
Although the letter belongs to the undisputed Pauline corpus, it is difficult to determine with certainty whether Paul was addressing the needs and circumstances of the original Galatian territory (Central Asia Minor) or the churches of the expanded Roman province also called Galatia (Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe). In either case, it appears that Paul was well received by those churches when an undetermined physical ailment necessitated his initial stay in the area. Paul himself attested that he had been accepted by the Galatians “as an angel of God, as Jesus Christ” (4:13-15). Because of their generous acceptance, Paul preached the Gospel in Galatia and was heartened by the enthusiastic response he received. Later, Paul would remind the Galatians of their initial welcome of the Gospel and exhort them not to be swayed by other itinerant missionaries whose false teachings threatened the authenticity of his message. These false teachers, probably Judaizers, were ultraconservative Christians who, like James, wished to foist Judaism and its practices upon pagan converts to Christianity.
In order to thwart their plans and strengthen the faith and freedom of the Galatians, Paul wrote with great emotion and intensity. His anger and frustration are clearly evident as he defends the Gospel and his authority as God’s apostle to preach it. Although emotional, his message is orderly and sets forth a clear apologetic letter in classical rhetorical style. As Cousar has further noted, Paul’s main intent was to convince his readers of the supreme authority of the Gospel of grace, an authority that had led them to the faith (1:6, 9), and which had redirected Paul’s life and sent him to preach the good news to gentiles (1:11-17). The priority of grace means that their salvation is not determined by the law but by God’s gift and that it is to be appropriated not solely by Jews but by all who believe (2:15-21).
In the part of his letter that constitutes today’s second reading, Paul makes his case yet again for grace over the law while marveling in the gracious gift of God that allows for those who believe to be God’s adoptive children. In that capacity, God’s children are no longer slaves but heirs who are privileged to call God Abba, “Papa” or “Daddy.” Therefore, a whole new world of familial relationships, of freedom, of joy and of intimate loving is established not because of the law, but because “God has sent forth into our hearts the spirit of the Son,” i.e., Jesus. As God’s beloved, graced and blessed daughters and sons, we share in the relationship that Jesus himself enjoys with God. If we were only to realize, truly and fully, the implications of this gift, how might that realization affect the way we live, love and serve God and one another?
Unique to the Lucan Gospel, the mention of shepherds first seeking out and then reporting on finding Mary, Joseph and the baby lying in the manger at Bethlehem is more significant than it may first appear to the modern reader. Ordinarily, and as Fred Craddock (Luke, John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky.: 1990) has pointed out, such announcements and the subsequent acts of glorifying and praising God (or the gods) were performed by great poets and orators on the occasion, for example, of the birth of an emperor or king. Nevertheless, Luke tells us that this honorable task was delegated to shepherds who were not only among the poorest of the poor but were even considered ignoble and outside the law, as their livelihood often required that they trespass on the property of others or poach off another’s water source in order to tend and feed their flocks. By specifying that these were the first to see and report and then glorify God for the birth of Jesus, Luke was, in dramatic effect, declaring that the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1 was being fulfilled: “The lowly shall have the good news proclaimed to them.”
Also fulfilled in this brief Gospel text is the word spoken to Mary by the angel messenger in Luke 1:31. On that occasion of the angel’s annunciation, Mary was told, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you shall name him Jesus. That very name, Joshua (or in Aramaic, Jeshua) which means “Yahweh is salvation,” is the name by which Jesus and his mission are identified. Through him, God will truly effect the salvation of all of sinful humankind.
Mary’s role within this context is consonant with her role throughout the Gospels. By her humble manner, by her trust and dependence on God, she teaches disciples how to be disciples. Notice how carefully Luke expresses her attitude: “she treasured” … “she reflected.” She does not ruminate; she does not wring her hands or lose heart; she does not allow fear of what she does not know or understand to paralyze her. Rather, she stored up in her heart what she did not comprehend and, in a spirit of trust and wonder, she returned from time to time to visit them and recommit them as well as herself, her son, her husband and their futures to God. She will, as Raymond E. Brown (The Birth of the Messiah,Image Books, Garden City, N.Y.: 1979) has pointed out, interpret all these puzzling events after the ministry, when Jesus has been enthroned in heaven. Then, as part of the community that had gathered to await the gift of Jesus’ Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:14), Mary will hear her Son proclaimed as “Lord, Messiah, Savior” (Acts, 2:36; 5:31). Then, at last, she will come to know fully what the angel’s words to her had meant. Then would she truly understand what she had held and treasured and reflected on in her heart. Blessed, truly blessed is she who hears the word of God and keeps it (Luke 11:28). Blessed, truly blessed are those who follow the lead of this exemplary disciple.
January 1, 2006
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
“Our Natural Ascent to God”
Fr. James Smith
The birth of God’s Son completed the Holy Family. To some people that sounds too obvious; to other people it sounds too incredible to pay attention to. We believers ought to take unbelief seriously. The Christmas story does indeed sound like many other religious myths of how God became human through the union of gods or the godly rape of an earthly woman.
But all these are merely myths that happen in magic-land, while we say that our story is a matter of history. Just because they are myths does not mean they are meaningless. In fact, they are the most important stories of any culture, since they describe the relationship of God with those people. Still, they are finally mythical explanations, and even those who told them didn’t believe they really happened.
But we insist that on a particular day at a particular time, the Son of God actually was born of a girl named Mary. There may have been added mythical elements to the story — unknowable mystery has to be clothed in some recognizable form — but the core of the event is factual. Mystery is by definition beyond human analysis, but it might be easier to believe if we phrased it in modern terms.
In the beginning, God was alone. Out of his goodness, God wanted to create things outside of Godself so they coo1d enjoy the experience of existence. God finally wanted some beings to be able to respond to him — but freely, out of their own consciousness. So God allowed them to evolve naturally, from their own element.
From with raw matter that had no shape or content, different beings gradually developed in increasingly higher forms. Each new being was a dramatic leap out of the old form into a radically different form. Until finally, a being emerged who was conscious of itself and also conscious of the fact that it did not create itself. That was creation from God’s point of view: a gradual mutual creation of everything from pure matter to spiritual matter; that is, an embodied spirit or a spiritual body: a human being.
From our point of view, we can trace the historical record of humankind’s gradual ascent from primitive cave dwellers to the invention of language and the formation of societies. And as people became better able to communicate with each other, they became more adept at dealing with God.
Then, at a certain day at a certain time, the culmination of God’s creation coincided with the height of human creativity, and the Son of God became the Son of Man. It was an ordinary, undramatic event. No miraculous intervention of God was required. Just as a soul comes into being at the precise time a fetus is able to receive it, so God became human at the precise time that a human was able to receive him. It was as simple and amazing as that: ordained from the beginning of creation but still surprising at any time.
The divine element is so intertwined with the human element that they cannot be physically separated. There is no point where the human ends and God begins. As with all of life, ordinary things become extraordinary when we attend deeply to them.
The birth of a divine human into the Holy Family is unprovable but not incredible. There are no logical reasons why God could not become human. In fact, there are many reasons why it should have happened. So why do some of us find it hard to accept? Because it cannot be proven. But what intellectual arrogance to presume that because we don’t understand something it cannot exist! Or is it because it seems too good to be true? But what lack of imagination to confine our hopes to the frugal limits of our human powers!
The joyous season of Christmas frees us from everyday constraints. During this mystical, magical time of the year, we are permitted to believe that anything is possible. And if we let our minds follow our hearts, we can actually feel the presence of God among us.
It is not too good to be true — that’s just the way God feels.
January 8, 2006
Life and Love Without Borders Patricia Datchuck Sánchez