O Saving Victim, opening wide
The gate of heaven to man below
Our foes press on from every side,
Thine aid supply, thy strength bestow.
All praise and thanks to thee ascend
For evermore, blest One in Three;
O grant us life that shall not end,
In our true native land with thee. Amen.
Yesterday, we had Evensong and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament at Christ Church and on Fridays we offer Stations of the Cross and Benediction. A Jewish man once, having attended Benediction at Christ Church, asked “So what just happened here?”
That is often a question I ask myself after Benediction as well! What just happened here?
There are the objective measures of what happened. Jesus, made known in the Sacrament, is before his people on the altar for them to offer adoration and praise and so that they may receive blessing and assurance from his Presence. He is present in a way that demands little of us in the way that receiving in the Mass does – we are not tasked with an Exhortation to adore as we are in the Prayer Book’s Exhortation regarding receiving Holy Communion. We are simply giving thanks and praise for the One coming among us in this particular way.
The Thirty-Nine Articles are seemingly outwardly plain in their condemnation of the practice. Article Twenty-Five cannot be argued with in its rather blunt assessment that the Sacraments are not to be “gazed upon, or to be carried about.”
Yet, John MacQuarrie writes of Benediction,
Anglican theologians have wisely avoided trying to give too precise a formulation of Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist, but they have consistently affirmed it and it is, of course, implicit in our liturgy. It is in terms of this focusing of our Lord’s presence that the service of Benediction is to be understood — and also justified, if anyone thinks it needs justifying. Psychologically speaking, we need some concrete, visible manifestation toward which to direct our devotion; theologically speaking, this is already provided for us by our Lord’s gracious focusing of his presence in the Blessed Sacrament.
When this is understood, complaints about “idolatry” or “fetichism” are seen to be beside the point. Let us assure any who may be perturbed over such matters that we are not being so stupid as to worship a wafer, nor do we have such an archaic and myth-laden mentality that we believe the object before us to be charged with magical power. Rather, it is in and through the Sacrament that we adore Christ, because we, being men and not angels, have need of an earthly manifestation of the divine presence, and because he, in his grace and mercy, has promised to grant us his presence in this particular manifestation.
Our days are often a blur. We are always challenged to see each day and moment as a holy and precious thing that is vibrant with the presence and grace of God. Those able to do this with a degree of regularity and dedication are named saints by the Church. In their very being they know and feel the great love of God. The sense of the love of God transforms their very being so that their outward and visible lives become manifestations of God’s transforming power.
Yet even saints’ awareness and sense of divine condescension can falter. A reading the diaries of Mother Theresa points toward the need so many of us have for some deeper sense, some more concrete communication, of the Presence among us. She wrote, to a priest, “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
All of us need assurance at some point or another that God is simply there. The Body of Christ is not meant to be carried about or gazed upon – as Article 25 of the 39 Articles says plainly. Yet it is to be adored, to be revered, to be given thanks for, and to be held for the world to see and know. Benediction offers a time for adoring the Presence of Christ in such a way as to seek nothing but the assurance that He is ever with us and to offer only that which we are ever commanded to offer, to love the Lord Our God with all of our hearts, all of our souls, and all of our minds.
If Benediction simply stopped at “carrying about” the Sacrament then we would be woefully in error. If it was simply an act of “gazing” then we would be undermining the fullness of the Sacramental life. Yet it is far more than carrying and gazing. It is holding up that which we know to be a concrete manifestation of the love of God. Held up is the host, the saving victim, so that all may be drawn to Him with renewed faith in that Presence.
We do not simply gaze – though that is part of the act for we do look intently with admiration, thought, or surprise. Benediction is not the act of gazing alone though – it is the community’s adoration – the body comes together in love to give our attention, if but for a moment, to the One who calls us and who comes to be with us.
Benediction is part of the work or preparation and contemplation the Exhortation calls us to. We do not come together solely to gaze but to be reminded of the power, grace, and love made known in the Body. We kneel in reverence as we are drawn ever deeper into the Mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood.
We may come to Benediction even when we know we are not ready to receive the Sacrament. We may perceive that there are wrongs we have done or things left undone that impair our ability to come with to the altar rail and yet Benediction reminds us that grace awaits – that Christ may be seen and known and his mercy endures forever. Benediction assists us in “sharing rightly in the celebration of those Holy Mysteries” for we are given the opportunity to “remember the dignity of that Holy Sacrament.”
In that act we render to God never-ending thanks for all of the benefits of the Passion and know that we are called together as one body with him. Praise is ever our bounden duty and service. Benediction is a chance to offer that praise and to simply be in the Presence of Christ. In a culture of too much noise and too little contemplation we are given a space to be.
In the Divine Praises, often said during Benediction, we hear and repeat the mystery of faith – that God dwells with us, is ever blessing us, and will make glorious that which often feels so feeble.
Blessed be God. We hear and repeat. Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true Man. Blessed be God in His angels and His saints. Blessed be God. That which we seek, which Mother Theresa ever sought, is offered to us and for us – unity with God and assurance of His Presence and mercy. Blessed be God in His saints. We give voice to the promise made to humanity that there is a Presence not simply in the Sacrament but dwelling deep in our souls as well. We come together as a Body to see and know our source and comfort and to know, in that place, that we to might share some small bit of that Presence with others.
Benediction is an act of prayer, thanksgiving, blessing, and preparation. We bow in thanksgiving and praise. The priest, in donning the humeral veil, makes clear that it is not him making the blessing but the Living Son who is lifted up that ever offers blessing.
Therefore, we before him bending,
This great Sacrament revere;
Types and shadows have their ending,
For the newer rite is here;
Faith, our outward sense befriending,
Makes our inward vision clear.
Glory let us give and blessing
To the Father and the Son;
Honor, thanks, and praise addressing,
While eternal ages run;
Ever too his love confessing
Who, in both, with both is one. Amen.
Words: Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1274); ver. Hymnal 1940, alt.
Benediction is one means by which we can come together to offer our thanksgiving for the great gift bestowed unto humanity in the coming of Jesus among us. It is a moment, an instant, in which the threads of holy time and the Christian story of the renewal of creation are woven together as the world slows to a crawl and the tapestry of Creation, Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension come together and are offered up for us to give thanks and praise.
Created elements, consecrated by divine mercy, are held aloft by sinful hands to be adored by loving hearts as the body sees and knows its source and fulfillment. Our hope is held before us, the ultimate sign of hope is made over us, and we lift our eyes and hearts in reverent thanks.
For some, that space may feel like a quiet time with Jesus as a friend. Others may find themselves thrown down in awe at the throne of grace. Others may be walking alongside Jesus on the road. Others may simply relish the absolute mystery of it all and watch the beauty of holiness unfold. Some may contemplate the Passion and others may know the joy of the Resurrection. Some may yearn for deeper relationship and others may know themselves not yet ready.
It is these and countless other ways of being with Christ that Benediction offers. The chance to dwell with the God of Hope without being told what that moment means. This is why I so often ask, as the Jewish fellow did, “What just happened here?”
O God, who in a wonderful Sacrament hast left unto us a memorial of thy Passion: Grant us, we beseech thee, so to venerate the sacred mysteries of thy Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruits of thy redemption; who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.