Blessings

Some years ago I remember hearing a sermon at by Mr. G__ at NWBC called “how to drink orange juice to the glory of God.” Evan an hour afterward I couldn’t remember what all he had said, but I was left with an impression that we could sanctify all our activities through sheer force of sincerity and willpower. I thought that to be so unlikely that I never bothered trying (that happened a lot). Whether or not that was actually the impression Mr. G__ meant to leave with us – and it probably wasn’t – I’ve been struck by it many a time over the years, and do not believe it to be merely a product of my lack of understanding. By force of sincerity I can… give my entire life to God, celebrate every day like Easter and have no need of holidays, sanctify time, do good deeds in gratitude, and so on. My father and I have been puzzling about this for some time – there isn’t a handle to grasp at it with; I don’t have enough sincerity force to even attempt to make a start of these things. Well, the other day Fr. John was talking about “I-thou-ing,” and it came back a bit, including a handle. Being me, you could probably have guessed it would be a liturgical handle – in this case blessing as an active and identifiable thing.

There are prayers for blessing houses, water, fruit, bread, wine, oil, icons, meat, cheese, and other things as they come up. Our culture has a tendency to downplay how immensely incarnational Christianity is, but it’s still there all the same. God is redeeming all Creation, not only humanity, even if she also must eventually die and be resurrected. Now and then God emphasizes the point: we are baptized of water and the Spirit – real, wet water, if it can be had; bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood – preferably actually bread and wine, and not some other thing that seems more practical to us; we anoint the sick with oil – actual, not metaphorical oil; some of also have evergreen wreaths for Advent, shroud the statues in purple for Lent, draw crosses of ash on their foreheads, wave palm branches, throw bay leaves for Holy Saturday, basil on the Feast of the Cross, eat grapes for Ascention, bake bread with coins on St Basil’s day, and on and on. Evangelicals tend to be uncomfortable with all this – even when they can’t help physical substance, as with baptism and Communion, they are not flamboyantly incarnational. There are little plastic cups of grape juice, and bits of crackers; no possibility of sharing germs, but not much possibility of anything else either. Like sacramentality, for instance. American culture is accused of being too materialist, not in the philosophical sense of believing that there is no such thing as spirit, but rather because we place too much importance on material possessions. I can’t help but wonder if we’re materialist because we fail to be sacramental. To use older terms, are we a bit gnostic because we fail to rejoice in incarnation?

Lately Fr. John has been trying to teach us about having an “I-thou” relationship with both people and things. I think he means accepting things for what they are and rejoicing in that, rather than trying to change them into what we believe would be expedient for us. Like the bit in Peralandra where Ransom is in a cave, a massive insect like thing comes out, and after being initially terrified, he realizes that it has a whole existence that isn’t at all concerned with himself. Only Fr John suggested that ideally he should be able to appreciate that even if the critter was about to eat him (though not using that example). Indeed, he argued that as far as we are concerned nothing is really bad, because anything at all may becomes means of communion with God, if only we accept it as having been sent by Him.

Though I believe Mr. G__ way attempting to pick the most inglorious yet innocent thing he could think of, there doesn’t seem any very good reason why there shouldn’t be a Blessing of Orange Juice. Perhaps somewhere there is, just as in Greece there’s a Blessing of Grapes in August. And if we were really and with all our souls to consider the oranges blessed, I imagine we would try to refrain from spoiling them, or getting sick off of them, or complaining or forgetting about them. Because whether or not blessing something does anything to the thing itself (and I suppose that it does), at the very least it presents the thing as a gift fresh from God.

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4 thoughts on “Blessings

  1. if everything is to be judged by inward attitude then “sincerity force” makes sense; I think Jesus was telling us to beware of having bad attitudes or being hypocrites, to think about how we should be grateful for everything and thank God for everything, not that we should automatically be so grateful for everything that that constitutes our motivation–the idea of duty is removed and instant automatic good motivation is substitued

    • Hmm. Well, in the case of the various blessings, I’m not sure that Christians do have a “duty,” per say. Certainly not the way the Israelites did, with God and Moses outlining specific days when specific sacrifices or blessings must be done. But Christianity isn’t really like that, except in a very few cases. We really are commanded to be baptized and partake of Communion and pray. But there’s no commandment to bless bread, wine, and oil at a festive Vespers, or houses, or bless holy water on Epiphany, or grapes at Transfiguration, or meat and cheese on Pascha, or oranges, or whatever else we might think to bless. So I suppose I was assuming sincerity to begin with, because otherwise why would one bother? It’s not like anyone believes that if they fail to bless something or other they’ll be in trouble with God. Or at least I very much doubt it. It’s a kind of flourish: “really? God will bless this water and make it holy if we ask? Fantastic!”

      But the difference, I think, is that some people believe that God really blesses things, whether we perceive it or not – and while it’s a good thing to be able to see that, not being able to see a blessing doesn’t make it not blessed. It just makes those people not be able to enjoy the blessing as much. On the other hand are people who do not believe that things are blessed in reality, and so one’s own ability to see them as blessed is the only thing there is. Like, say the Floridians decide to have a blessing of the oranges. In the first case you can bless them: if the Orthodox are in charge it will probably take half an hour, and involve orange-clove incense, bells, lots of exclamations of “Lord have mercy!” and asking God to bless them 15 times, with a different aspect of the potential goodness of oranges expressed each time – just to make sure God knows we’re serious. If someone else is doing it, maybe it will just be a very soulful exclamation of “Lord, bless these oranges!” followed by a profound silence. Whatever the case may be, at this point the oranges are either different from before in some way we can’t quite fathom – objectively blessed – or they aren’t. If they are, then either we can perceive and appreciate that blessed quality, or not. Sometimes saints would live for months at a time off of a little holy water and blessed bread – apparently they were good at appreciating the quality of being blessed. But if, on the other hand, the oranges aren’t any different, then it puts a good deal more responsibility upon the person appreciating them, because that’s all there is. So there are two kinds of sincerity – somebody who sincerely believes in the orange being blessed as an objective fact, but perhaps doesn’t feel it, and someone who whether there is an objective fact or not, by “force of sincerity” now perceives them differently, and can be more properly grateful for them.

      What I was thinking is that since most of us are not “always playing the high notes,” it’s helpful to belong to a church that believes in the sacramentality of things, because then, so long as we ask and believe, it’s really God’s responsibility to sanctify Creation, and not our own. And He is a good deal more reliable than we are. Does that make any sense?

  2. Yes, it does. I have to admit to not thinking of an ‘objective blessing’ at all, until you pointed out that was what we are to believe or it is just symbolic–but maybe I shouldn’t say ‘just symbolic’—maybe that symbolism has more force than I think it does–it certainly does for Mom in a NWBC communion–of course to actually believe in the efficacy of sacraments is one of the major dividing lines between Protestantism and Orthodoxy and Catholicism–obvious enough.

  3. Yes, it does. I have to admit to not thinking of an ‘objective blessing’ at all, until you pointed out that was what we are to believe or it is just symbolic–but maybe I shouldn’t say ‘just symbolic’—maybe that symbolism has more force than I think it does–it certainly does for Mom in a NWBC communion–of course to actually believe in the efficacy of sacraments is one of the major dividing lines between Protestantism and Orthodoxy and Catholicism–obvious enough.

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