I gave the benediction at our Christmas Eve service last week. In a step away from our tradition, the service did not end with the reverent, candle-lit singing of Silent Night, with the congregation circling the sanctuary, looking into the faces of people we’ve known for years and see more or less often, knowing that right now, at this very moment, it is Christmas – it is Christmas and we are through with the waiting and ready to celebrate Hope and Peace and Joy and Love. Instead, the interim pastor, unfamiliar with the way we normally end things, tacked on a benediction at the end, and asked me to read it.
Apparently, a benediction is the utterance of a blessing; the solemn invocation of blessedness upon a person; a devout expression of a wish for the happiness, prosperity, or success of a person. (I heart the OED.) How is it that I have the authority or power to utter blessings upon people?
The other night, a cross-stitched hanging on a friend’s wall caught my attention. Lauding the joys and graces of being a member of the Commonwealth, the quotation ends by proposing that to be a Virginian is “…a benediction from the Almighty God.” That's right. If there is anywhere that I find happiness or prosperity or success, it is here in this sweet state.
But I’m not really sure that happiness and prosperity and success are the things that I wish most for myself, or for the congregation of First Church of the Brethren, or for the people I love. Luckily, the Oxford English Dictionary provides multiple definitions. #2: “blessing carried into practical effect, blessedness; kindly favour, grace.”
Now, blessedness and kindly favour – those still seem a little shallow. They make me think of the ridiculous picture of a radiant Virgin Mary, pure as snow, smiling her inane, knowing smile during the entire ordeal of being impregnanted by an unknown entity, wondering if her fiancee would still marry her, giving birth to the Son of God, having to watch him do insane things, act disrespectful, perform miracles and be put to death on the cross. Or of a smiling Grandpa-looking God, rosy cheeks and cascading white hair falling perfectly around his white wrinkled face, showering his kindly favour down upon us smiling children. They make me think of the absurd ideas we have of God and the crazy, unrealistic expectations we have of ourselves.
But grace…grace is something I can handle. To ask for grace, given and received – that I can pray for. I can express the most devout of wishes for grace to be showered down and shared and carried into practical effect for myself, for those I love, for the world. When I am at a loss, when I have no words left, no idea what to do from here, I pray for grace and strength. The strength is self-explanatory – to be able to keep standing long enough to get through whatever it is that I’m in. The grace is more complicated. I don’t just want to stand, I want to stand with grace.
What does it look like to stand with grace? I’m not sure. I’m not sure that I’ve ever really done it. What I think it looks like, though, is standing face to face with someone else, face to face but with a space in between. There’s some component of forgiveness in there, and love, and letting go of your vise-grip. There’s a bit of dispossesion, countered with a strong sense of connection and compassion. There is oneness and twoness, self and other, identity shared and unknown. “Grace,” says Simone Weil (by way of Jess sitting here beside me in Virginia, a rare, rare occurrence), “fills empty spaces.”
To wish these things for people is powerful. To ask a benediction upon those people I love is ineffably sublime. But the devout wish is only true when it is accompanied by the practical effect. My wishes are only authentic when I carry them out by standing with those upon whom I ask the blessing. The benediction is only a blessing if I work within and through it to make it real.
Here’s another thing about benedictions. Usually, they come at the end. At the end of a service or the end of a trip or the end of a relationship. But that doesn’t really make sense to me. Whether you wish happiness and prosperity for people, or whether you pray for grace on them, doesn’t it only make sense that you would stick around to see those wishes and prayers through? If I care about you enough to offer a benediction upon you, then I am most definitely going to be close by to help carry it out into practical effect.
Merry Christmas. Grace and strength to you all.