The Book of Blessings is a rich liturgical resource, both for our parishes and for our homes. Here Erica Marshall explores some of the ways we might use this sometimes underappreciated collection of blessings during Advent and Christmas to deepen and enrich our celebration of these hopeful seasons.
Wikipedia describes blessings as ‘the infusion of something with holiness, divine will, or of one’s hope or approval’. This secular source points to a sacred truth. Blessings invite us to see how, in the light of hope, all things become holy. Our deepest hopes and dreams are most often what God also wants for us!
We practise such hope during the weeks approaching Christmas. These weeks can be filled with frantic activity. So much to do, so little time. The year is running away from us! And yet, we deliberately choose to pause, to make meaning in our parish communities by celebrating the special blessings of the season. Together, we choose to become conscious of God’s favour.
Our Church has special blessings for the Advent wreath, the Christmas crib and the Christmas tree. Many people may not be aware of the beauty and adaptability of these blessings, which can be celebrated within the Mass, within a Liturgy of the Word or, more simply, at home gathered around the table, the tree or the nativity scene.
Book of Blessings
The Book of Blessings (Catholic Book Publishing, Totowa, NJ, 1989) is a collection of many Catholic blessings for different occasions, places and things in the lives of people who wish to celebrate the abundance of God. Its general introduction sets blessings in the context of the entire history of salvation. God, the source of all blessing, continually transforms our world. As darkness becomes light, as death gives way to life, we recognise a familiar pattern—the paschal mystery—in which we are continually invited to participate. Whenever we pray a blessing, we invite transformation, both for ourselves and for the occasion or object blessed. We affirm the pattern of Christ by which we live. In the ritual life of the Church today, we bless bread and share a cup of blessing in our sacred meal. In fact, ‘in the Eucharist, the Church itself becomes a blessing existing in the world’ as it ‘continues the work of sanctifying’—in other words, as we (who are the Church) learn to recognise the sacred in all things (BB, §8).
The introduction reminds us that blessings are signs rooted in God’s word. They are signs of the newness of life in Christ that we celebrate in the sacraments. All blessings glorify God for the gifts we receive. Through blessings, we ask God to favour us and to restrain the power of evil in our world (BB, §11) Therefore, even though we often bless events or material things, blessing prayers are always oriented towards people—the people who will use these material things, or for whom these events have special meaning (BB, p. 12) Blessings, therefore, make holy the ordinary in our everyday lives.
Ideally, blessings are celebrated in community. Importantly, this gives us a sense that the power of blessing reaches out beyond any particular individual concerns, flowing into a wider dimension of wholeness for the world.
Whenever we adapt a blessing, we are encouraged to preserve the central elements of word and blessing. An underlying principle is the active, conscious and easy participation of everyone present (BB, §§24, 39e). Unless they occur during the Mass, blessings are actually short liturgical celebrations in themselves, typically with a liturgical (four-part) shape:
- a short beginning rite
- the proclamation of Scripture
- praise of God’s goodness and our request for God’s blessing
- a short concluding rite.
Blessings should be sympathetic to the particular liturgical season in which they are celebrated (BB, §§34, 1505, 1508). Part V of the Book of Blessings offers blessings for the feasts and seasons of the church year.
We find the blessing of the Advent wreath in chapter 47. It is presumed that we bless the wreath once only—on the first Sunday of Advent. On subsequent Sundays, we simply light the corresponding number of candles either before Mass begins or immediately before the opening prayer (BB, §1512). We are encouraged to see the four Advent Sundays as a unit, rather than as four separate occasions to bless and light each new candle.
At Mass on the first Sunday of Advent, the blessing of the wreath concludes the prayer of the faithful. In the Book of Blessings, we find sample intercessions with the traditional Advent response: ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (BB, §1518). Instead of the usual prayer to close the intercessions, the presider prays the prayer of blessing (BB, §1519 or §1520) and the first candle is lighted. Advent images are reflected in the text of the blessing.
(Jesus Christ) is Emmanuel, the hope of the peoples,—BB, §1520
he is the wisdom that teaches and guides us,
he is the Saviour of every nation.
Alternatively, in a Celebration of the Word, the wreath is blessed after the people pray the Lord’s Prayer. The liturgy closes with a blessing or dismissal of the assembly, and a final song (BB, §§1521–1536). When, as in many country dioceses, the community is unable to celebrate Mass regularly, a Communion rite is usually added to the Liturgy of the Word. If this happens on the first Sunday of Advent, the prayer of blessing for the wreath would close the intercessions, while the Lord’s Prayer would begin the Communion rite.
A shorter rite is also given for a wreath blessing at home, perhaps at the beginning of the evening meal on (or near) the first Sunday of Advent (BB, §§1537–1540). It consists simply of a liturgical invitation to prayer and a few lines chosen from the Advent Scriptures, followed by the prayer of blessing and the lighting of the candle.
Of course, it is presumed that a family would adapt this rite creatively according to the age levels of the children and the time constraints of family life. Building and lighting a wreath during Advent can provide an activity that draws a family together to express their faith in a creative and non-threatening way—a way of sitting down together at table, on purpose, to enjoy each other’s company. After all, isn’t Christmas about en-fleshing God in our midst?
Chapter 48 sets out the order of blessing for the Christmas crib. It is more appropriate to arrange the crib in a place that is suitable for devotional prayer, away from the action of the liturgy. An appropriate place is at the front entrance, if the architecture permits. It is important that the Advent wreath, the crib and the Christmas tree are not placed in such a way as to clutter the liturgical space or take attention from the major focus areas such as the ambo, the altar and the chair (BB, §§1512, 1544, 1571). These symbols need to be appropriated to a liturgical setting. They must clearly serve the liturgy and not distract from it (Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, 1977, §21). Many families also set up a crib in their homes.
The crib is usually blessed on the Vigil of Christmas. The rite can take place within Mass, a Liturgy of the Word or even a carol service. The crib is blessed at the end of the prayer of the people, in the case of Mass or a Liturgy of the Word. The assembly’s intercession response reflects the feast of Christmas: ‘Come, Lord, dwell with us.’ A simpler family blessing is also provided for the crib at home (BB, §§1547–1569).
In chapter 49, we find a similar set of blessing rites for the Christmas tree. Historically, the tree is a relatively late addition to our Christmas celebrations. It reminds us of the tree of paradise, and also of the cross that brings us through death to life. We place many lights in its branches to symbolise Christ as new Light coming into the world. We bless the tree on or before Christmas during a Celebration of the Word or Liturgy of the Hours but not during the Mass (BB, §1572), perhaps because, for this blessing, the Scripture is related to the tree itself as symbol rather than coming from the Lectionary for Advent. The assembly’s response to the intercessions again mirrors what we ask of God at this point in the season: Lord, give light to our hearts. The lights of the tree are turned on only after the prayer of blessing—adding a dramatic touch that would appeal especially to the children in our communities. A simple litany of welcome accompanies the illumination of the tree. Just as for the wreath and the crib, a blessing is provided for the tree within the family circle (BB, §§1576–1596).
The leader of the blessing may be either an ordained presider or a layperson. A layperson (if there is no deacon) would lead if a community celebrates a Liturgy of the Word (with or without Communion), the Liturgy of the Hours, or a blessing at home. A priest would lead at Mass.
This Advent, perhaps the Book of Blessings (chapters 47–49) will inspire us to enhance our parish celebration of this wonderful season of hope as we celebrate the coming of Christ—new Light and Life for our world.
Erica Marshall has resourced country dioceses in liturgy formation for many years. She now lives on the Sunshine Coast, working on a freelance basis. Erica enjoys life, learning, people, travel, nature, the arts, beauty and depth in all its forms.
This article has been adapted from an article first published in The Summit in November 2009.