20 February 2022

Homily - What does it mean to bless God, someone, or an object?

The Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

A week from today the Bishop will come to bless our new organ, which you have not yet heard because it has not yet been set aside for divine worship. Today King David says, “Bless the Lord, my soul” and the Lord Jesus tells us to “bless those who curse you” (Psalm 103:1; Luke 6:28). We speak, then, of blessing things, of blessing God, and of blessing people, but surely blessing things, blessing God, and blessing people does not carry the same connotation. What, then, does it mean to bless?

It seems to me that when some people think of blessings, they think of blessings over objects, whether it be a Bible, rosary, candle, statue, medal, or other object of religious devotion. Some mistakenly think that such a blessing somehow grants a quasi-magical power to the blessed object; this, of course, is not the case. What, then, does it mean to bless something or someone, or to bless God?

Our English word “bless” comes from the Old English word bletsian, meaning “to consecrate by a religious rite, make holy, give thanks.” To consecrate something – literally, to make something holy – is to remove it from the everyday world, to set it aside exclusively for divine purposes. This is what the Church does when she blesses an object. For example, during the blessing of an organ, the Church first blesses God – she thanks and praises him - by calling to mind the great celestial hymn sung by the angels and, indeed, by all of creation. Similarly, during the blessing of sacred vestments, the Church blesses God – she thanks and praises him - for the priesthood of Jesus Christ in which ministers of the New Covenant share.

In the texts of these two blessings, we can learn something important about what the Church does through blessings: “Blessings … refer first and foremost to God, whose majesty and goodness they extol…;” David blesses God by praising his goodness and rejoicing in his majesty.[1] Here we must come to another meaning of blessings: we cannot set God apart from our everyday lives because he is not of this world; consequently, there must be another meaning, a secondary meaning, of blessing.

Our English word “blessing” is used when the Latin texts speak of a benedictio, a word comprising two Latin words: bene, meaning “good,” and dictio, meaning “I speak.” In Latin, then, a blessing, a benediction, is good words that are spoken. To bless God is to speak good things about him, which is to say, words spoken in praise of God because of his goodness which he continually communicates to us.

Perhaps paradoxically, it is precisely by invoking God’s goodness that blessings “also involve human beings, whom he governs and in his providence [he] protects. Further, blessings apply to created things through which, in their abundance and variety, God blesses human beings.”[2] For this reason, when the Church sets aside an organ explicitly for sacred use, she prays that the organ’s music “may lead us to express our prayer and praise in melodies that are pleasing to you [God].”[3] Similarly, when the Church sets aside certain vestments for the exclusive worship of God, she prays that the sacred ministers who wear them may be “prepared for the celebration of the liturgy and set apart by your blessing, wear them with reverence and honor them [the vestments] by the holiness of their lives.”[4] But the sacred vestments do not simply remind bishops, priests, and deacons of the holiness of life to which they are called; through the holiness of their lives and the noble beauty of the garments, you, too, ought to be inspired and led to greater holiness of life so you might bless God through the witness of your lives.

In these two blessings, we see that we bless God “by praising him and thanking him and by offering him … reverent worship and service.”[5] Consequently, in order that the Christian faithful may bless God through and with their very lives, the Church also blesses people because “Christ, the Father’s supreme blessing upon us, is portrayed in the gospel as blessing those he encountered, especially the children, and as offering to his Father prayers of blessing.”[6]

Regardless of whether they pertain to God, to things, or to people, blessings are aimed at growth in holiness, which “is the goal of Christian life.”[7] Indeed, “what God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness.[8] We grow in holiness when we bless God because we call to him his own holiness. We grow in holiness when we bless people because we recall God’s activity and presence in their lives. We grow in holiness when we bless objects because we recall God’s particular care for us in the things he has made.

This is why the Second Vatican Council taught that, through her blessings, the Church

sanctifies almost every event of [our] lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.[9]

Blessings, then, are “a promise of divine help, a proclamation of his favor, [and] a reassurance of his faithfulness to the covenant he made with his people.”[10] When we sing in the Psalms, “Bless the Lord, my soul,” we remember God’s faithful love; when we follow the command of Jesus to “bless those who curse you,” we remember God’s great mercy toward us; when we bless objects, we remember God’s fatherly care for us. Through each of these forms of blessing, may our lives, too, become a blessing, a hymn of praise to God raised in gratitude to him. Amen.

[1] Book of Blessings, 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 1337.

[4] Ibid., 1352.

[5] Ibid., 6.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 1 November 2010.

[8] Ibid., Homily, 17 September 2010.

[9] Sacrosanctum Concilium, 61.

[10] Book of Blessings, 6.

06 February 2022

Homily - The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time - 6 February 2022

The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) 

Dear brothers and sisters,

“In the year King Uzziah died…” Is this not the way all great tales begin? The vision the prophet Isaiah then goes on to tell is one of the greatest tales that could be told. It is the vision of God who is “King of all the earth, the ruler of wind and water, harvest and seed-time, sun and storm.”[1] It was a vision that both terrified him and that made him realize his mission. 

He does not begin his account in this way – in the year King Uzziah died – simply to tell a good story. No, using this literary phrase, the prophet Isaiah situates his vision of a reality outside of time within time, in the year 742 b.c. to be precise. He does this to assert the truth of what he saw, to make clear he did not just make it up, but in order to more fully understand why he does this, we have to know something about King Uzziah. 

Judah had known no king like Uzziah since the time of Solomon. He had been an efficient administrator and an able military leader. Under his leadership Judah had grown in every way (cf. II Chronicles 26:1-15)… How easy it must have been to focus one’s hopes and trust upon a king like that. What will happen, then, when such a king dies, and coupled with that death there comes the recognition that a resurgent Assyria is pushing nearer and nearer? In moments like that it is easy to see the futility of any hope but an ultimate one. No earthly king could help Judah in that hour. In the context of such a crisis, God can more easily make himself known to us than when times are good and we are self-confidently complacent.[2] 

This is why the prophet of God says, “In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne;” he saw the true and eternal King, the one in whom we have our only and ultimate hope (Isaiah 6:1). 

Isaiah did not, however, only see God enthroned; he also saw – and heard – seraphim, angelic beings of fire with six wings. 

…the seraphim typify the appropriate response to God’s holiness … perfectly ready for praise and service. One pair of wings is used to cover their faces, for even the most perfect of creatures dare not gaze brazenly into the face of the Creator. The sight would be too much. Another pair covers their feet… [feet being used] in ancient Near Eastern literature as a euphemism for genitalia… As the creature should not look upon the Creator, so that the created should not be displayed in the sight of the Creator. But to be in the presence of the Creator is not primarily to be prostrated with awe. Rather, it is to be filled with praise. So, with the third pair of wings the seraphim were flying, all the while calling out their ecstatic song.[3] 

It is their hymn of praise, their hymn of high joy, that we are allowed and invited to sing each time we gather to offer the Holy Mass: “Holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3). The Seraphim sing it three times because saying something three times in a row is the Hebrew superlative; to say, holy, holier, holiest in Hebrew, you have to say holy, holy, holy. 

Let’s pause here for a moment to consider what it means to praise God, and why doing so is more desirable than falling down before him. 

Praise is the form of prayer which recognizes most immediately that God is God. It lauds God for his own sake and gives him glory, quite beyond what he does, but simply because he is. It shares in the blessed happiness of the pure of heart who love God in faith before seeing him glory. By praise, the Spirit is joined to our spirits to bear witness that we are children of God, testifying to the only Son in whom we are adopted and by whom we glorify the Father. Praise embraces the other forms of prayer and carries them toward him who is its source and goal…[4] 

If we do not yet have a desire to praise God eternally with the angels, it is only because we do not yet love him sufficiently. 

If we are to sing in the sight of the angels, if we are to sing well the praise of the thrice-holy God, we must be like the Seraphim; we must be clean (cf. Psalm 138:1). Isaiah cried out, “woe to me, I am doomed!” because he knew he was not clean. For Isaiah and for the ancient Hebrews, 

The primary element about God’s holiness that distinguishes him from human beings is not his essence but his character… Here, then, Isaiah recognizes with sickening force that his character is not, any more than is his people’s, in keeping with God’s character. Their lips do not belong to God, else they would continually pour forth praise like the seraphim. Why, then, are the lips unclean? Because that of which they are an expression, the heart and the will, do not belong to God. That which God possesses is clean, for it is like him. Thus, it is not merely purification of the lips which is necessary. Nor is it mere ritual purification that is needed. In some way, sin and iniquity must be removed if Isaiah (and his people) are ever to serve God with clean lips.[5] 

Indeed, God himself removed Isaiah’s wickedness and cleansed him of his sin and now Isaiah can truly join in the heavenly song of the Seraphim (cf. Isaiah 6:5). 

It is good to notice that Isaiah’s vision of the throne room of God involved his sight, his hearing, his touch, his smell, and his taste; it involved each of his senses, his entire body, which may be taken to be a foreshadowing of the bodily resurrection of the dead for which we hope. It is not just our souls that are destined to be in the presence of God, but our bodies, as well. What Isaiah saw, we, too, will come to experience, if only we allow God to make us clean, if only we become holy, as God is holy (cf. Leviticus 21:8). 

Some people think that holiness is beyond us and, hence, that heaven is beyond our reach, but it is not, if only we only we hold fast to the Gospel that has been preached to us and which is saving us now (cf. I Corinthians 15:1-2). The Good News proclaimed to us is this: that the God who sits enthroned on high came to earth; that he took on our flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary; “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3-4). In short, in Christ Jesus, heaven has come to earth so that we might go to heaven. 

All of this is to say that “because God is holy, he can forgive the man who realizes that he is a sinner before him.”[6] This was certainly the experience of Saint Peter, and of Saint Paul, and of the prophet Isaiah, and indeed of all the saints who now sing in the presence of the angels in heaven. And if God can make them clean, he make you and me clean, as well.

This is all well and good, but what do we mean when we speak of heaven?

…this word Heaven does not indicate a place above the stars but something far more daring and sublime: it indicates Christ himself, the divine Person who welcomes humanity fully and forever, the One in whom God and man are inseparably united forever. Man's being in God, this is Heaven. And we draw close to Heaven, indeed, we enter Heaven to the extent that we draw close to Jesus and enter into communion with him.[7] 

This is why heaven is both “the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” and “the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ.”[8] This is why J.R.R. Tolkien once said, “There is a place called ‘heaven’ where the good here unfinished is completed; and where the stories unwritten, and the hopes unfulfilled, are continued. We may laugh together yet…”[9] May the Lord, then, teach us to place our ultimate hope in him alone, cleanse us, and make us know our greatest happiness in singing his praise for ever in the greatest of tales. Amen.

[1] Aiden Nichols, O.P., Year of the Lord’s Favour: A Homiliary for the Roman Liturgy: Volume 3: The Temporal Cycle, Sundays through the Year (Freedom Publishing Pty Ltd: Balwin, Victoria, Australia, 2002), 27).

[2] John N. Oswalt, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39, R.K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., eds. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986.), 177.

[3] Ibid., 179-180.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2639.

[5] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 183.

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 208.

[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 24 May 2009.

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1024, 1026.

[9] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 45, 9 June 1941. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Humphrey Carpenter, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 55.