Many parishes offer a Blessing of the Animals service on or near the Feast of St. Francis on October 4. On St. Blaise Day, February 3, you can have your throat blessed during the Mass. Some parishes also offer an annual Blessing of the Backpacks during the week before school begins. What do these blessings actually accomplish? What is the difference between a blessed pet or an unblessed pet, a blessed throat or an unblessed throat, a blessed backpack or an unblessed backpack?
As with other types of prayer, in some ways asking what a blessing does is to miss the point. Prayer is not primarily a means to an end. As Fr. Matthew Olver has said about the liturgy, prayer does not mean anything. Rather, it is something. It is an end unto itself. It is in and through prayer that we spend time with God. Asking about the cash value of that time would be like asking about the cash value of watching a movie with your spouse or throwing a ball around with your child. Its value is relational, not practical.
Nonetheless, it is understandable that we wonder about what happens when something or someone is blessed. There are clear — albeit debated — answers about the Sacraments. Bread and wine blessed during the Holy Eucharist become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ. But when we move into the realm of other blessings, the nature of what is happening becomes a little less certain. If we do not understand what is happening during a blessing, we might wonder why we bother to bless things at all. Are blessed objects different than unblessed objects? Can anyone offer a blessing, or only certain people like priests or deacons? Is a rosary blessed by the pope somehow better than if it were blessed down at St. Swithin’s in the Swamp?
Blessing comes from the Latin word benedicere, which is also the root of benediction. It means a good word. The Bible contains many different examples of blessings. God promises repeatedly that he will bless Abraham by giving him descendants as numerous “as the stars of heaven” (Gen. 22:17). Jacob and Esau fight for the blessing of their father. Jesus famously refers to certain kinds of people as blessed in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and Luke 6. In Ephesians 1:3, Paul blesses God in response to the blessing he has given us in Christ.
All of these blessings are good words, but they accomplish very different things. God’s blessing of Abraham came with a promise of what he would do for him. Abraham is clearly going to be different after the blessing than he was before. On the other hand, we would not expect that Paul’s blessing changes God’s nature or his future. In that case, the good word is simply an acknowledgment of the reality of God’s goodness. Blessing God does not change him, but it changes the person who offers the blessing, who comes more deeply to know who God is.
Historically, the Catholic Church has made a distinction between invocative blessings and constitutive blessings. (One of my favorite podcasts, The Liturgy Guys, recently did a show on this topic that lays it out very well.) Invocative blessings involve asking God to show favor upon something without changing its status, like when a parent blesses a child or when we ask God to bless our food before we eat. Constitutive blessings involve a permanent shift in which something or someone is set aside for sacred use, such as the blessing of a new church or the blessing of monks and nuns before they make their final vows. There is a recognition in this method of classification that not all blessings do the same thing. Yet whether we are talking about invocative blessings or constitutive blessings, what they all have in common is that they are meant to immerse us in the goodness of God.
We live in a world in which the presence of sin and death has disconnected us from God. This is true for the objects we use as much as it is for us. The whole world was affected by the Fall of Adam, not just Adam and Eve. The world was created for communion with God. Every inch of creation — every rock and pebble, every skin cell and follicle — was carefully and purposely stitched together into a seamless whole, made to reflect the light of God back to him. As creatures made in God’s image, we human beings hold a special place in that creation, but we are not separate from it. When humanity chose to sin, the whole created order was transformed. God’s goodness remained a hallmark of creation even after the Fall, but since the Fall all of creation has existed at a distance from God and out of sync with his original design.
Blessings are about returning to original goodness. Regardless of what we bless, that is always the underlying intention. We may ask God for specific things as part of a blessing — “Lord, bless this house with peace and security” or “Lord, bless this child with health and long life” — but behind all the things we ask for is a deep desire to see the world set right, to see that which was intended for union with God return to the goodness for which it was created. This is ultimately what the whole of the Christian faith is about. We trust in the fact that in Jesus Christ, God has done what is necessary to reconcile the world to himself. Every true blessing is ultimately an imparting of the good word that God has spoken from time immortal.
So maybe a blessed pet or backpack does not go through the kind of ontological change that takes place when we consecrate an altar or bless water for baptism, but there is a change that takes place all the same. That which God blesses is restored spiritually. Outwardly and inwardly it may be exactly the same as it was before, but at the level of relationship with God, a blessed object has become a sign of the renewal of all creation that is taking place in Christ.