Pastoral Blessing and the Benediction

Posted by on Jun 25, 2018 in News | Comments Off on Pastoral Blessing and the Benediction

The act of pastoral blessing is nothing new. In fact, Aaron gives a blessing in what is referred to as the Aaronic benediction, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift us his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24–26). However, blessings did not only occur in the Old Testament, they happened in the New Testament as well. Luke begins his Gospel by recounting Zechariah’s blessing (Luke 1:68–79). There are many other instances of blessings given by Jesus that Luke records, such as the blessing of children (Luke 18:15–17). Luke ends his Gospel in chapter twenty-four, “And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven (50–51).” Paul began his letter to the Ephesians reminding them of the blessings of the Holy Spirit in their lives, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly place” (Eph. 1:3). The writer of Hebrews ended his letter with the blessing, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:20–21).

 While blessings are found throughout the Scriptures, their use in the Christian tradition has been mixed. Within our own circles, for example, they have seldom appeared in official resources for pastoral care.  Blessings are not found in certain sections, such as private visitations, in the last three published LCMS pastoral agendas or companions for spiritual care.[1] Neither are blessings found in the latest pastoral visitation guide, Visitation: Resources for the Care of Souls.[2] One exception to this lack of blessings as part of a visitation guide or pastoral care companion is RITES and Resources for Pastoral Care, which was published by the Lutheran Church of Australia in 1998.[3] In fact, RITES and Resources for Pastoral Care recommends that “prayer may be accompanied by the laying on of hands and culminate in God’s word of blessing. Here too, a well-known blessing can often be especially comforting to people who are troubled.”[4]

  In 2009, John Kleinig wrote an essay, “Pastoring by Blessing,” where he made several observations about pastors blessing their members. A pastoral blessing 1) is a verbal act, 2) is a declarative act, 3) is a wishing of God’s wishes, 4) includes appropriate hand gestures, 5) depends on the right use of God’s word, 6) can turn God’s promise into a benediction, 7) cannot contradict God’s will, and 8) it is best to bless in the name of the Lord.[5] These guidelines are followed for the development of blessings in Bringing God’s Comfort and Peace in Tragedy and Spiritual Care Companion for Times of Disaster.

 Nathan MacDonald wrote an essay, A Trinitarian Palimpsest: Luther’s Reading of the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6.24–26), in which he contends that it was Luther’s influence that brought the priestly blessing to prominence within the Divine Service: “the Formula Missae outlines a number of innovative practices including … the concluding benediction.”[6] According to the author, Luther had three key ideas for the use of blessings, “… forgiveness, the sun, and the word. The blessing speaks directly of the forgiveness of sins. When the believer experiences God’s forgiveness, it is like the shining of the sun bringing joy and brightness … This forgiveness comes through the word, a reference not only to the Reformation emphasis on Scripture, but also to the Son and Word of God.”[7] The blessing gives peace and security in the wake of life’s tragedy and natural disasters. This is helpful imagery that the love of the Son and His blessing is like the warmth of the sun in a cold, callous, and broken world full of sin and the effects of a fallen creation.[8]

 In his classic work, An English Benedictional, Anglican scholar Richard Tatlock compiled and translated many English blessings for congregational use from the Leofric Missal. Tatlock explains that blessings can be “extempore or based on a verse of Scripture.”[9] Although Tatlock argues for the incorporation of blessings into the worship service, unfortunately, he remains silent about the use of blessings in private situations or during times of tragedy. In fact, of the many blessings that are written for congregational use in An English Benedictional, there are no blessings to be spoken for worship services after times of tragedy. The closest blessing that he has for times of tragedy would be the blessings he wrote for times of blessed harvest or for protection against evil.

Pastor Lee Eclov is a leading evangelical and professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Eclov has taught about the use of blessings in pastoral care. Christianity Today recently said that Eclov’s article, “The Neglected Power of Blessing” was one of Leadership Journals’ most significant articles in its thirty-six-year history. The author described the benediction as “the going-away gift many of us give our congregations as they prepare to leave the worship service. But I’m surprised how few pastors I’ve talked with use a benediction elsewhere—like at a bus stop—and some never use it at all. They’re missing something precious and ducking their duty.”[10] Eclov quotes Scripture before giving the Aaronic blessing. He uses the words of Peter, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.”[11]  Eclov states, “These are the privileges of being God’s people. This is who you are, thanks to Jesus Christ … Then I raise my hands over them and blessed them.”[12] God calls Christians to love and bless others even in the midst of horrifying situations (Luke 6:27–28). Peter encourages Christians to “bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). Declaring God’s grace through blessing is helpful to traumatized victims of natural disasters because they are reminded of who they are as God’s children in the midst of chaos and tragedy. Lastly, he recommends giving blessings before you depart from the person you are doing ministry with. “I think the sweetest and perhaps most important time to bless God’s people is when we part. When it is someone’s last Sunday in our church, I single them out at the end of the service, and though I am often choked with tears, I sing Aaron’s benediction over them. I’ve said it in hospitals and over mourners at gravesides.”[13] As well, it would be a great practice to say a blessing of God’s peace and comfort before a pastor ends his visit with someone who has lost their house and home.

Not only are the words of the blessing significant but the posture of the one giving the blessing is important. James Brauer explains that within the service, “the benediction is spoken with uplifted hands, as Christ raised his hands to bless his disciples before his ascension … the pastor says the words of blessing, the sign of the cross is made. … By putting the cross together with the words, we are saying the Old Testament words are effective because of God’s peacemaking on the cross.”[14] If a pastor or lay person is giving a private blessing it may also be done with hands placed on the recipient’s head or shoulders. The sign of the cross may be made on the forehead or in front of them.

During times of uncertainty and tragedy it is important to remember the significant role of Lutheran worship to strengthen the spiritual caregiver, the Christian, and even the non-believer. Mercy work leads to the cross and during Lutheran worship we see Christ and His cross more clearly. This is where the caregiver, the downtrodden, the unbeliever, the lonely, the desolate, the scared, and every human being needs to be—in worship.  During the service, the consistent Word of God, said in the Liturgy, read in the biblical readings, the hymnody, and the preached Word of God is the only thing that can soothe and comfort a broken spirit. 

[1] The Lutheran Hymnal: The Pastor’s Companion (St. Louis: Concordia, 1941). Lutheran Worship, Little Agenda (St. Louis: Concordia, 1985). Lutheran Service Book: Pastoral Care Companion (St. Louis: Concordia, 2007).

[2] Arthur A. Just and Scott A. Kinnaman, Visitation: Resources for the Care of Souls (St. Louis: Concordia, 2008).

[3] Lutheran Church of Australia, RITES and Resources for Pastoral Care (Adelaide, South Australia: Open Book, 1998).

[4] Lutheran Church of Australia, RITES and Resources for Pastoral Care, 4.

[5] John Kleinig, “Pastoring by Blessing,” Mercy in Action: Essays on Mercy, Human Care and Disaster Response, ed. Ross Edward Johnson (St. Louis: The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 2015), 337–340.

[6] Nathan MacDonald, “A Trinitarian Palimpsest: Luther’s reading of the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6.24–26),” Pro Ecclesia Vol. XXI, no. 3 (2012), 301.

[7] MacDonald, “A Trinitarian Palimpsest,” 309.

[8] MacDonald explains, “The believer wishes for peace, security, and victory over the flesh, the devil, and every evil. The Spirit is given so that believers do not face the devil alone. When we fear that the world and flesh would lead us into darkness, this blessing promises the return of the light of God’s word to enlighten us.” MacDonald, “A Trinitarian Palimpsest,” 309.

[9] Richard Tatlock, An English Benedictional (Westminster: The Faith Press, 1964), 9.

[10] Lee Eclov, “The Neglected Power of Blessing,” Christianity Today, April 2015, accessed February 23, 2017, christianitytoday.com/pastors/2015/spring/neglected-power-of-blessings.html.

[11] 1 Peter 2:10

[12] Eclov, “The Neglected Power of Blessing.”

[13] Eclov, “The Neglected Power of Blessing.”

[14] James L. Brauer, Meaningful Worship: A Guide to the Lutheran Service (St. Louis: Concordia, 1994), 87.

Source: LCMS News