What is a Blessing?
Blessing is a formula by which a person or object is pronounced holy or by which God's favor is asked. The term "benediction" is often used synonymously with blessing, or to refer to the short blessing that concludes a religious service. Blessings are sometimes classified as either constitutive or invocatory. Constitutive blessings are official, and they set aside a person or object for God's worship. When they are specially solemn, they are called consecrations. Invocatory blessings are less formal, asking God's help for a person in special need, or simply asking for help in general.
In the Old Testament, instances of blessing are found in the account of Isaac's blessing (especially in Genesis 27) and that of Balaam (Numbers 23). God's blessing to Abraham (Genesis 12) is particularly important because it carries on to all his posterity. In the New Testament there are instances both of blessing God in thanksgiving and of asking God's favor. A most solemn instance occurs at The Last Supper, when Christ blesses His Father in thanksgiving.
Blessings continued in the early church. In the Liturgy of Hippolytus, about 200 a. d., there are examples of the blessing of penitents, as well as blessings of oil, milk, honey, and water. During the Middle Ages blessings were used more and more frequently. By the time of the Reformation they were used so indiscriminately that Protestant authorities began to reject them.
Roman Catholic belief in the fittingness of blessing is part of the general attitude toward sacramentalism. Following Christ's triumph over sin, there remains the work of applying this triumph to all of reality. Until his second coming, the struggle between good and evil is not complete, and blessings are meant to emphasize God's progressive dominion over creation.
In Roman Catholic tradition blessings are given to objects as diverse as seedlings, cars, typewriters, fish, or religious vestments. Because of this variety the Roman Ritual includes a special blessing "for any object." Special prayers, or collects, are provided for such blessings, and the sign of the cross is made over the object, which may be sprinkled with holy water. Holy water is today understood as related to baptism, and thus a person or object blessed with holy water is related to Christ's redemption, which is shared in baptism.
Blessings have an ecclesiastical, or churchly, dimension as part of liturgy or official worship. Traditionally they are administered by bishops or priests. In Vatican Council II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (79), however, provision is made for blessings to be administered by "qualified lay persons." In many families fathers bless their children at bedtime.
During the course of the Mass, several blessings are prescribed, notably at the solemn dismissal. Blessings are also used in the administration of all the sacraments, and a blessing normally begins and closes every service. Catholics also frequently bless themselves at the beginning of prayer or in time of special need.
There are 12 benedictions proper in the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church, among them being the blessing of the bread and wine in the prayer of consecration at Communion, and the blessing of water in the baptismal offices. Among most Protestant denominations a blessing is pronounced at the end of services.
In the Jewish religion, blessings of benedictions constitute a part of the prayer service in the synagogue as well as in private prayer. Other forms of benedictions in Judaism include those recited before eating or drinking, those preceding the performance of a commandment, and those of praise and thanks.