My journey through the landscape of the Eucharist has taken nearly six months and this talk marks its ending. For those of you who have walked with me on each occasion, I hope that I have been able to present familiar - perhaps over-familiar - territory from a new viewpoint, to open up one or two new paths for further exploration, or at least to clarify places where the path seems overgrown or obscure.
Along the way, two main themes have occupied us; firstly, the idea that we are a people, a collective, who give thanks together, suffer together and who minister to each other and to the world; secondly, we have thought about the idea of encounter - the dramatic meeting between God and humankind that is enacted on each occasion that we celebrate the Eucharist. We have examined what it means to gather together rather than to worship exclusively as individuals, to go on a collective ‘pilgrimage of the heart’, seeking true purity, making confession, giving glory to God, praying and interceding for others, expressing our faith in the creed, making peace, working within a sacred economy, remembering our tradition, enjoying Christ’s presence and exploring the Lord’s Prayer.
Now, finally we come to the end and what else should we think about but Blessing? The world ‘bless’ comes from Old English, and its original meaning was ‘to mark or consecrate with blood’ which suggests dark pagan rituals but is also a vivid image of the Eucharist itself in the sense that we as participants are ‘washed in the blood of the Lamb.’ By the time Christianity was established in England following Augustine’s mission in 597, the word had come to mean ‘praise’ - to worship or bend the knee to - a translation of the latin word benedicere, to speak well of - itself a translation of the hebrew word barak and the greek word eulogeo. (That’s probably enough dictionary for one homily!) This helps us to see something important - that words are also actions. To speak, to communicate, is to act upon the world, for good or ill. Words are never really ‘just words’ or why would I be writing this now? They have an effect. When Jesus is described in John’s Gospel as ‘the Word made flesh’, this thought is given a deep theological grounding - Jesus is not just an idea, but an action - the action of God coming towards us and living with us and for us.
In pre-Old testament times, blessing had magical powers associated with it - it meant endowing with beneficial power, and also the condition of being endowed - a bit like Superman. These two sides of the word are wrapped together in the idea of a blessing as a self-contained beneficial force which can be transmitted from one person to another, in contrast with the action of transmitting a curse.
The Old Testament takes these magical powers and attributes them exclusively to the God of Israel. You may remember the story of Balaam - the man with the donkey - and how the king of Moab wanted Balaam to curse the tribes of Israel who he felt were threatening his land. Balaam would only say what the Lord wanted him to say, and despite all the king’s pleas, Balaam refused to curse the Israelites and blessed them instead. God is the source of blessing and we must beware of thinking of it as some kind of talisman that keeps bad things at bay.
Certainly the Bible understands that God wants to bring good things to his people, and from the time of Abraham onwards He has made blessing part of His promise, his covenant with His people.
Blessing is often associated with things that priests do - we pronounce God’s blessing at the end of a service. In the Old Testament the tribe of Levites were privileged to say a blessing at the end of each service - but I want to suggest to you that in fact Christians are all called to bless and to be a blessing to the world. The Beatitudes help us to see why this should be: living for Christ in the world means living radically for others - the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the reviled and despised. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew tell us that God’s blessing is upon such people. Each of us is called to be part of the way God blesses those who are weak, poor, hungry, sick, oppressed.
Finally, blessings were often associated with greetings and partings - a sign that the opening and closing of an encounter are under God’s sovereignty. I wonder how it would be if you were to practise this? Why not try it for a day? Make each greeting and parting with everyone you meet, no matter who they are, into some form of blessing, either with word or action or both. You might soon find you are living out your vocation as a member of the Royal Priesthood to which, as I reminded us at the start of this journey, we are all called.
And so, in the words of Aaron’s blessing: May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord let his face shine upon you, and may he be gracious to you; may the Lord lift up his countenance towards you and may he set well-being upon you.
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