Sacramentals – A Form of Mission

July 15, 2011

I am a blessings priest! I use the ritual with its numerous liturgical blessings and find it a powerful form of mission.

As I write this, I have just come from blessing an expectant mother. After receiving the blessing she said, using a special Japanese simile, “My fears have evaporated like the morning dew. My tension and aloneness have gone. I feel confidant.” And this first-time expectant mother really meant it. Her eyes just lit up. It is a beautiful blessing. It starts with a prayer expressing how this mother is sharing in God’s own creation. The short Gospel reading is from Mark 10:13-16. Jesus blesses each child and mother. The prayers emphasize joy and trust.

In Japan on November 15, there is a traditional blessing of children aged 7, 5 and 3. In the country, parents take their children to their local Shinto shrine. But urbanized and Christian Japanese have no such shrine. We give the children and their parents a blessing at the church. I would usually have about 250 children, plus their parents (95% non-Christians) from the local kindergartens. I urge the parents to seek God’s help in raising their children in our present unsettled society. To the children, my message is this: “Say thank you from your heart – to God – and to your mom and dad. They do so much for you. Thank you is the most beautiful word in the language.”

I have noticed the great influence that blessings have on people’s hearts. God enters into their daily lives. In talks, in the catechumenate, and in sermons we can tell people that our God is close and cares for each one of us, but often it is not until a blessing is received at a time of crisis for a particular purpose that realization comes. Yes, I can rely on my God. Yes, the Church is relevant in my daily life.

Blessings have been part of Church life for a long, long time. They are mentioned in the third century Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus. One, called in Latin Itinerarium (Going on a Journey) became popular in the sixth century when monks, such as St. Columban, were setting out on dangerous missionary journeys. I recently blessed a young student who was going overseas to attend a meeting on behalf of her university. Kaori-san had never been on a plane before nor had she ever left the country. She had never traveled alone even within Japan. The blessing had an amazing effect. Fear was replaced by trust in God. She looked forward to the experience. The Scripture reading used is from Genesis 28:21. Jacob sets out on a journey and promises, “If God will be with me and watch over me on this journey of mine till I return home, the Lord shall be my God.”

When I was pastor in the southern village of Sakitsu, the Catholic communities were all connected with fishing. Near my home town in Island Bay, New Zealand, our bishop used to bless the Italian fishing fleet every year. So in Sakitsu I held the annual blessing of boats. What a festival they made of it! All the boats were festooned with a mass of colorful flags. I remember as I went across from boat to boat each man lifted the hatch cover to allow the holy water to fall directly onto the small but vital diesel engine. The Gospel was the storm on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus calls from the fog, “Fear not, it is I,” and then creates a calm sea. The final prayer is beautiful: May Jesus lead you always to a safe harbor and to the final harbor which is Heaven.

I bless the ground before work starts at a building site. Here there is much scattering of blessed salt. There is another blessing when the roof beam is raised, and finally another when the family moves into their new home. During this blessing, a medal is put over the front entrance. I emphasize the blessing of the family altar which is very much a part of Japanese households following the Buddhist tradition. I pray with the family before the altar and urge them to keep praying before it as a family.

I also bless cars and motor bikes. Here the blessing emphasizes safe driving and road courtesy as a practical way to love one’s neighbor. Driving with thoughtfulness for others is part of living a Christian life.

And there is a blessing for the saddest of occasions when a mother loses a baby through a miscarriage, a stillbirth or sudden infant death syndrome. This blessing embraces the distraught mother with gentleness, using words like, “Comfort this woman in the emptiness which gnaws within her. God’s love seems to be contradicted. Give her hope O Lord.” The document from Rome, The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Baptism (January 19, 2007), is a great help here. Prior to the release of the document from Rome, I just gave the sorrowing mother my own opinion on the limitless expanse of Abba’s tender loving kindness. Now Heaven for unbaptized babies is official!

I have found it is important to give time and care to these blessings. A perfunctory set of words is disastrous. This time is sacred for the person receiving the blessing. God is showing His personal love for this person in this particular circumstance.

I have found that blessings touch people. They feel that the gentle Jesus comes directly into their ordinary everyday lives. He really does walk the road of life with them. Through blessings Jesus says in a living voice that reaches the ears of the heart, “Fear not! I am with you.” That surely is the Good News. That is mission!