Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Part II: The Nature and Practice of Blessing

Our series on marriage and blessings continues. Here are the notes from the presentation of The Rev. Dr. Heather Warren from Sunday March 13, 2011:

Welcome to our second session on marriage and same-gender blessing. Our topic for today is blessing. Why blessing?

 It is because the language that is being used in the church’s consideration of rituals for same-gender union is being considered under the rubric of “blessing” rather than “marriage”—as a way of honoring those in The Episcopal Church who hold firm to the belief that marriage is a term only applicable to opposite genders, a woman and a man?

Or, is it because in The Book of Common Prayer the wedding liturgy is properly called “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage?” Or, is it because the bishop said this is what we are to do?

 It’s all of the above. However, our most immediate impetus for a closer look at the nature and practice of blessing comes from Bishop Shannon Johnston. In his pastoral address to the annual meeting of the Diocesan Council (to those of you from other dioceses, this would be Diocesan Convention), Bishop Johnston pointed to the fruits of the listening sessions on the matter of blessing same-gender relationships. He noted that there were “Significant common questions…evident from the comments in the listening sessions.” In theological terms, he said the questions turned upon “the nature of blessing.”

Here are the questions as he posed them: “What is a ‘blessing’? What does [a blessing] mean?.... Is a blessing inherently sacramental? Does the Church bless or does God? [Note: This begs the more fundamental question of Who blesses? Then, if and when the Church blesses, ‘What does the Church do when it blesses?’ (Johnston)] ....What part, if any, does the assembled community play in a blessing? What is the nature of communal recognition and support afterwards?” Today we are going to delve into most, if not all, of these questions.

I think it is quite important to lay out our method for taking up these questions. We are really fortunate as Episcopalians to be members of the Anglican heritage that has a method of inquiry which lands in our laps. Many of you might be familiar with it: it is called the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason. This is the method we use in examining and testing everything in our ecclesial life. It is a method that has been articulated as a distinct mark of Anglicanism since the 16th century, and it has stood us in excellent stead over the centuries.

Today, we will start with scripture because that is the first and foremost authority in our tradition. What does scripture have to say about blessing? The answer is a lot—and even a lot more than we cover in this morning’s session. Nevertheless, we are going to cover a significant amount of ground.

For starters, the term “blessing” in its several forms occurs over 400 times in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. In Genesis it occurs 88 times; in the Psalms it occurs 83 times; the remaining approximately 230 times are distributed throughout the other books. It is not unusual for blessings to be coupled with curses. Here’s an example from Genesis 12:1-3 in God’s call to Abram:

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ ” 

[You will find a number of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy, too, which we are currently reading in our Lenten devotions, e.g, Deut. 7:12-16 for Friday, 3/11/11.]

The New Testament has blessings, too. Probably the most famous are the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

And so on. In Luke 6, what is known as the Sermon on the Plain, we get the “blessings” combined with curses in the form of “woes.” For example: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”

 (The word for “blessed” in the Beatitudes and in this part of the Sermon on the Plain can also be translated as “happy,” but we’ll get to that in a little while.)

 It should come as no surprise to us that in the New Testament we also hear of Jesus blessing. What or who did Jesus Bless? (WWJB? /WDJB?) [children, food, wine, fishes and loaves, bread and wine, people, the disciples ]

When we look closer at the biblical texts, we learn that in the Hebrew Bible there are two words that eventually make their way into English as “blessing” and “blessed.” Those two words are brk and ‘asr. Let’s take brk first. It used in two predominant ways. One is in the form of thanking another person. The other is as praise, thanks, and worship of God, often in the passive voice, baruk, “Blessed are you, Lord God, who [does or is x, y, or z]…”

Now, let’s look at the other Hebrew word ‘“to bless.” It is‘asr, and it is better translated as “to make happy” or, as noun, “happy.” In the Hebrew Bible it is only used of humans, never of God. It refers to a person who has been favored or experienced something good happening to them whether as something added to them or some dreaded being averted. The common form is “Blessed is the man who…” This word ‘asr is the kind of “blessed” and “blessing” found most frequently in the Psalms and Proverbs.

 In the New Testament, this word is more familiarly translated as “happy,” as in the more accurate translation of the Beatitudes: “Happy are the poor in spirit…Happy are those who mourn…” Only twice in the New Testament is it used in reference to God, and both of those instances are in 1Timothy.

There are words in the Bible that are often found associated with “blessing” (what scholars call “the semantic field”). One is the word that means “to act graciously or favorably.” The Hebrew root is the same as the one that lies in the Hebrew word we translate as “grace” (hnn).

A second word means “to please favorably” or “to be favorably pleased” (rsh and rashon). A third one means “to advance or prosper” (slh). A fourth is one that you will have heard of before: shalom, the overall state of well-being or security that results from blessing.

Based on the nature of these two words and the way they are used in the Bible, we find that there are two predominant types of blessings. One is a pronouncement of benefaction that occurs in one of two ways: something good is going to happen, or has happened, and you thank or praise your benefactor—God or a patriarch or a king; and you and I are ok with each other—most often this is between God and a chosen person or Israel (being in a state of righteousness)—and we will prosper because our relationship is good.

The other predominant type of blessing occurs as a petition for blessing: I or we want need something good to happen—for example, a bountiful harvest, or a baby as in the Song of Hannah. It’s not uncommon to have these types combined in the same statement. One of the best examples of this is in a blessing that is probably known by many of you, the priestly blessing that God tells Moses to give to Aaron and his sons in the Book of Numbers 6:24-27:

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. So they shall put my name on Israel and I will bless them.” 

In the time of Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple, the priest was enabled by God to declare blessing upon Israel, but only in the name of Yahweh. He was also the chief intercessor with God on behalf of the blessing, articulating this blessing as a petition as well as a pronouncement.

With of all this biblical information before us, but especially with the two Hebrew words brk and ‘asri and their variations in mind, let’s ask an important, but possibly obvious question: Why is there more than one word for “blessing” in the Bible? Why are there different kinds of blessings? The answer is that the language and act of “blessing” cover a variety of relationships.

I call your attention to the phrase a variety of relationships. Blessing always involves at least two parties. There is no such thing as a solo or solipsistic blessing. The primary factor in any blessing in the Bible is a statement of relationship between parties. It can be a blessing between God and person (Abram’s call, Jacob when he wrestled with the angel/God at the River Jabbok); it can be between God and a group (the nation Israel). It can be a blessing between individuals, humans blessing humans (like Isaac and Jacob). Or, it can be humans blessing/praising God (lots of that in Psalms).

In every instance, the blessing makes known the positive, life-giving and life-enhancing relationship between the parties. In a blessing the giver, the recipient, and witnesses (where there are some) are testifying to the value of the relationship and its desirability. In the Bible, blessings portray the goodwill between parties and find their basis in the human-divine relationship. When God blesses, God is declaring his fundamental commitment to life.

When blessing occurs between people, they are declaring that they believe they have a positive relationship between them and that this relationship is life-giving, and has something central to do with living life abundantly, the kind of abundant life that Jesus came to make available to all people. All of these relationships are also characterized by faith: faithfulness between the parties, and faith in the future that the parties will share.

Related to this is the fact that the Bible points out to us appropriate times for blessing. Usually they occur at threshold moments in a person’s or people’s life: when they are facing a time of decision or something significant is happening between God and the created order—for example, the creation of the human kind and the Sabbath, the covenant renewal, the arrival of the Messiah, to name a few “biggies.” Note that these examples are all examples of highly potent life-giving actions.

But there are many other kinds of blessings, too. Read Deuteronomy to find a list of times when blessings come to people in more particular ways which are not always major threshold events. But the clear implication of those passages is that you are to be aware that God is the source of all life, and that all of our relationships whether to people, animals, and things are ultimately to be oriented to God. By the same token, we see relationships and endeavors blessed in the Bible when they draw people into more faithful fellowship with God—that is what the biblical witness means by righteousness, or to use a old fashioned word that is synonym of righteousness, “sanctification.”

Now that I think we’ve covered some important scriptural ground, let’s turn to tradition. Let’s take a little inventory here by delving into the church’s tradition—those blessing practices we have done in the past and do presently arising from what we and the church have done in the past . What are some kinds or occasions of blessing that come to your minds? 

Think of the everyday ones as well as the not-so-everyday ones. [the blessing over a meal, boats, cars (California, probably Detroit as well), blessing someone when they sneeze, the blessing of homes in the seasons of Epiphany and Easter, the blessing of bread and wine for your Thanksgiving dinner tables, the blessing of first fruits, harvest blessings, the blessing of the water in baptism, the blessing at the end of a worship service, the blessing of a pregnant woman, the blessing of anointing oil (Episcopal), the blessing of a stole (Episcopal), the blessing of the hounds, the blessing of a child, the blessing of a marriage, plenty of blessing in a Eucharistic service]

  • Who, traditionally, is doing the blessing in these blessings? [God, priest, parent, friend, bishop, congregation, well-meaning stranger in the case of sneezing]

Now let’s move into the reason part along with our consideration tradition regarding blessing.

  • What are you (or the priest, or the bishop, or the well-meaning stranger) doing when you bless? [declaring positive intention for someone; asking God to be with them because God is acknowledge as the source of and sustainer of life; petitioning—when someone says, “Bless, you” they are often really saying, “May God bless you with good things”; when you/we bless it is also a recognition that because of some kindness you have shown someone one, you are blessed because you have demonstrated in your action that you are in a right relationship with God (or at least seeking to live in a right relationship with God because you are in a right relationship with others); likewise because of action taken collectively or individually we are seeking to be in a right relationship with God; God is saying that you are in a right relationship with me]
  • Where does the church figure in relation to blessings?

[As a worshipping community we bless God in the sense of praise and thank God, and such worship declares the rightly ordered divine-human relationship between God the Creator and us as God’s beloved creatures; the desire for blessing expresses the Church’s desire for right relationship with God and belief in the fullness of life which attends that in the here and now, but even more so in the fullness of eternity; the church is witness to blessing; the church works towards the blessing—restoration in right relationship—of the entire creation because of its belief in the reconciling and resurrecting work of Christ, and because the Church is the Body of Christ.]

We know that not all relationships and not all blessings are of the same magnitude and dimension even with their positive relational aspects before us. Why do we consider some blessings of greater significance than others? In other words, why do we consider the blessing of a marriage to be more important than the blessing of cars or the hounds? Think about the criteria that come to your mind. What are they? [Humans are made in the image of God, unlike other creatures or things in creation; life commitment vs. transience; relationship with God; a shared future with each other and a shared future with and in God]

People’s relationship with God is the most important relationship, so we give greater weight to those blessings and the desire for blessing that promise to enhance our relationship with God, both individually and collectively. This is why we bless marriage. “Now your next task is to see each other to heaven.”

Grace is a factor. Blessings are statements about grace, because grace is about our relationship with God. Blessings are praise and thanksgiving for the grace we have received and petition for the grace we continue to need, especially in a lifelong, intimate relationship. Those who have been married a long time can testify to the role of grace over their years together. Those who have experienced divorce know what it is like when grace is excluded, resisted, and/or not sought.

  • I want us now to analyze the blessing in the Marriage liturgy: Is this pronouncement or petition, or both? Is this brk blessing and/or asr blessing? Who is doing the blessing? [“God!” they shouted.] But what about the role of priest as the rubric points out? [Brief discussion and instruction about theology of vocation regarding holy orders—distinction within unity, representative aspect of ordained ministry in which the priest, standing on the threshold/thin place where God and the people meet, represents God to the people and the people to God.] 
  • What is the nature of communal recognition and support for the marriage blessing afterwards?/Why does the community say, “Amen”?—Who is the community?

By moving forward with same-gender blessing in The Episcopal Church as “a generous pastoral response” to gay and lesbian couples, the church has not shut the door on the possibility of their life-commitments to each other as being a way for them to grow, together and individually, into deeper relationship with God, moving them towards fullness of eternal life in the same mode as opposite-gender couples.

No comments:

Post a Comment