I was raised in the genteel city of Birmingham, AL, which is another way of saying that I grew up around hospitable, polite and loving … trash talk. A sampling of regular conversation might include, for instance, statements such as, “Did you see what she wore to the Piggly Wiggly? Bless her heart.” Or, “I can’t believe her Momma let her out in those seersucker overalls without monogramming them first; bless her heart.” Those of us who have lived or sojourned in the American South will have countless stories to share along these lines. It is a strange experience, indeed, to be formed by a culture where blessing could be trash talk, where it can be speaking badly about others. But what is blessing?
There is a mismatch between the prominence of blessing in the Scriptures and the attention it has received in theology … [p]ersonally, as one who particularly respects the traditions of the Dominican Order, I am drawn by the threefold pattern set out in one of their mottos: Laudare, Benedicere, Praedicare (‘To praise, to bless, to preach’). We have a sense of what it means to have a vocation to praise, and perhaps what it might mean to have a vocation to preach, but what — we might ask — does it mean to be called to bless? (pp. 4-5)
Davison ruminates on the nature of blessing, and asks and answers questions about why we bless, who we bless, and when we bless. In fact, he does much more, and while I heartily recommend his book, I do not intend for this post to be a book review, but rather, to orbit around a few substantive contributions from Davison to the discussion of blessing, and the question of the nature of blessing. Whether your vocation is within or outside the Church, you are in some sense called to bless, but what does this mean, and what would it look like?
Blessing: speaking well about Creation
Davison posits that blessing is, in part, speaking well about creation and of God (p. 5,) drawing from Luke 24:50-53. The Church can speak well about creation, because God has spoken well about us and to us in the Word, Jesus Christ. Blessing par excellence is embodied in the speaking of Creation into existence, in the creating and investing of the stuff of life with goodness, primarily through its grounding in the goodness of God. Blessing in this sense is about recognition and conferral (p. 6), or the inverse of what F. D. Maurice said, in calling the Church to be about
proclaiming society and humanity to be divine realities, as they stand, not as they may become, and by calling upon priests, kings, and prophets of the world to answer for their sin in having made them unreal by separating them from the living and eternal God who has established them in Christ for His glory. (Jeremy Morris, To Build Christ’s Kingdom, p. 51)
When we bless, we recognize how Creation — persons or things — have become untethered from their Creator, and we affirm their goodness once again. In this sense, we easily see how the Eucharist is the arch-blessing of the Church, as made evident in the Preparation of the Gifts at the Altar.
|Priest:||Blessed are you, Lord,God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.|
|People:||Blessed be God for ever.|
The priest lifts up the chalice, or cup, of wine and prays:
|Priest:||Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.|
|People:||Blessed be God for ever.|
The connection between blessing and the Eucharist is rich and much has been written on it, but it bears repeating that early on in the liturgies of the Church the blessing of creation through the priestly work of Christ and the Church was seen to really effect the “stuff of everyday life.” This is present in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus and the blessings over milk, fruit, water, and even light, as in the Phos Hilaron, all of which are discussed in Davison’s work (pp. 139-40). Much of this, of course, had precedent in the liturgies of Israel. Speaking a word about the created order in a way that clearly articulates and traces out its goodness grounded in God is the task of blessing; such speaking is a non-ambiguous utterance of the Church about the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God and the Lordship of Christ into our midst.
Blessing: the gift of the Father to the Son through the Holy Spirit
One of the beautiful connections made by Davison is the Trinitarian nature of blessing, and here an extended quotation is necessary:
… Christ is blessed as the perfect recipient of the Holy Spirit. He was divine in his very person, but he was also perfectly human, and being divine did not prevent him from relating to God in the way that any other human being relates, namely through the Holy Spirit. Christ was the perfect recipient of the Spirit, the one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord ‘rests’ … [j]ust as Christ is both supremely blessed, and this as something that he receives from God, so in the eternal life of the Trinity the Son of God is equal to the Father in blessedness and yet receives this from the Father. To be blessed is to receive the favour of God, and God’s love and presence. The Son’s entire being is the reception of the blessing of the Father. The Son enters into blessings of Israel, and the vocation to be a blessing, and he does not keep that to himself. Rather his plan is to gather up ‘all things’ into his body, the Church, and into his ‘inheritance’ (Eph. 1). We see this link between Christ’s vocation of blessing and ours spelt out particularly in 1 Peter, where the author urges his readers to bless those who do them ill: ‘Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called — that you might inherit a blessing’ (1 Pet. 3:9) (pp.50-52).
Given this Trinitarian interplay of blessing, which I take as patently and scripturally true, it therefore only makes sense to bless in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. A blessing in the name of any one person of the Trinity potentially discounts the whole nature and activity of blessing within the interior life and activity of the Triune God.
Moreover, this notion of inheritance also underscores several components ingredient to what blessing is (as assumed by Davison), namely, that blessing is restoration (p.19), blessing is offering and consecration (pp. 22-24), and blessing is the deepening of any thing into being more of what it is, by nature (p. 25). Davison writes:
Blessing or consecration should not be seen as some form of confiscation of things from themselves, some alienation from their own nature. Rather, blessing seeks to make things even more what they are and are called to be. That is part of what any proper account of redemption means. A blessed relationship, with its lifelong commitment, enters most fully into what a human relationship can be and mean; blessing a home commits us to all the virtues of homeliness; the chalice is the truest cup (ibid.).
One is here reminded of New Testament authors who often shift in the Greek mood from the indicative to the imperative, which serves as a kind of call to become what we are: “You are the Body of Christ, therefore act like it! (Clint’s Paraphrased Version CPV). Such scriptural injunctions call us into receiving the inheritance, as it were, the blessing of God. When clergy bless people, for instance, they are likewise restoring, conferring, and inviting them to more fully enter into receiving the gift of being and becoming sons and daughters of the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit. In this way, blessing is teleological, calling Creation beyond the present moment to where God intends to take it, beginning even now the restoration of all things. The only proper response from Creation receiving this gift is that of the Psalmist, “My foot stands on level ground; in the great congregation I will bless the Lord” (Ps. 26:12). As Davison points out, ultimately blessing does not absolve us from action (because “God has done his work”), but rather, it commits us more fully to it (p. 118): we’re committed both to blessing/speaking well of God, and of being the blessing God now calls the Church to be in the world.
Blessing: for Clergy only?
Building on the notion that the Eucharist is the chief blessing, in particular, Davison then teases out an answer to who can bless, in general, and his answer is, in effect, anyone (but with some serious and thoughtful considerations). First, he writes that
Blessing is a priestly action, which is not to say that it is an activity restricted to those who have received the office of priest or bishop through ordination. Blessing is a priestly activity, but Christ’s people are a priestly people — not some only, but all of them. The Church is, as we read in 1 Peter 2:9, a ‘royal priesthood’. (p. 167)
Davison highlights how even the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms this truth.
However, there are blessings that are proper to one’s vocation in life, whether as a farmer, a chef, or a priest, and this is really where the answer takes on substance. Davison, drawing from his colleague Alison Milbank, posits that, ironically, we ought not to clericalize the ways lay people might bless, as they have forms of blessing that are proper to their vocation as lay people in various fields, whereas clergy have forms of blessing proper to their ecclesial stations. For instance, it is improper for lay people to preside over the blessing of the Eucharist, or to bless a church building, or to bless a newborn baby, as this falls under the sacramental provenance of ordained vocations (in particular, bishops who have delegated their authority to priests, and in some cases, deacons as well, to bless, with or without Chrism oil).
Are lay people merely left with blessing their food? Davison helpfully suggests that various lay vocations and trades are in their being and operation blessings to the world. Consider the following quote:
For most of Christian history it has been natural both to see these activities themselves as acts of blessing and to ally them with specific pronouncements or invocations of blessing so as to recognize this. The work of the farmer is a blessing to the community, and this is taken up into blessings of the fields, perhaps on Rogation Sunday. Such associations between activity and prayer are bound to spring up. We prepare food for ourselves and for others, entering into the business of blessing by our actions, and we say grace; we build houses and we bless them; we bury the dead with dignity and we bless the graves. There is a blessing that is about labour and a blessing that is liturgical (pp. 169-70).
The beauty of traditional practices such as “beating the bounds,” for instance, is that they unite the work of lay people with the work of the church, thus imbuing both with a fullness and intentionality of blessing funded by various vocations of the people of God. We might imagine other opportunities where work accomplished by lay people might be situated within a more intentional, liturgical, and ecclesial framework, precisely in order to articulate how such work is blessed and a source of blessing to the world. If opportunities for lay people to participate in blessing do not exist, it is due, at least in part, to a lack of imagination, not to an oppressive hierarchy disallowing them the opportunity to live into the priesthood of all believers. It is not that our vision of blessing is too small, it is, rather, not large enough to include the work of all God’s people. In the final estimation of blessing, it is critical to note, as Davison does, that in any and all blessing it is Christ who blesses: “We properly speak, and he speaks through us; we properly bless, and he blesses through us” (p. 177).
A blessed conclusion
There are many other helpful parts of Davison’s book to discuss (such as the difference between invocative and constitutive blessings, and blessings in the Anglican tradition), but to do so would be to stretch a blog post into a full-blown book review. Of course there are, as Davison points out, things the Church cannot bless, such as armaments (pp. 159-60) and, depending on your theological views, certain unions (pp. 161-66). Regardless, we need to talk more in the Church about the theology of blessing, particularly abuses of blessing as seen in movements like the “Prosperity Gospel” (Davison devotes an entire chapter to this!), and I might add, the blessing of abortion clinics by Episcopal & Methodist clergy. But for more on this, you’ll need to buy the book. And by the way, if you read this entire post, well, then bless your heart.
The featured image is the mosaics in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinaris in Classe near Ravenna, Italy. It was taken by Fr. Lawrence OP and is licensed under Creative Commons.