A church service can be a spiritual oasis for many people. Taking part in worship, surrounded by fellow brothers and sisters in the faith, orients our lives toward God. Worship reminds us who we are as people created in God’s own image; we experience the assurance of Christ’s unyielding love, and constant presence. In turn, this spiritual oasis helps us navigate the complexity of our lives and the struggles we sometimes encounter. Maybe this is something you have experienced. Of course, in any church service, the time will always come wherein we need to exit the sanctuary and step back into the world. We go back to our homes with the leaky faucets and over-due bills; we go back to our work with the awaiting deadlines and tasks. As we exit the doors of the church it can be easy to feel that this spiritual oasis is now behind us.
This is why the benediction is so important. Have you ever stopped and listened to the benediction? Have you ever thought deeply about what it says about you, and your life? Often, we don’t. For many churches, the benediction is the final act of worship. The priest or pastor stands before the gathering, with hand extended over the congregation, and closes the service. It can be easy to see the benediction in this way, as nothing more than the appropriate way to end a religious service. The prayer is said, the service closes, and we are on our way. What if there is a bit more to the benediction? What if the benediction is not simply a fancy prayer, but a profound act of empowerment and sending? What if the benediction actually declares a reality for your lives, a reality bestowed upon you in that moment? If so, it might just be something we need to pay attention to.
Here are three things that you need to know about the benediction, and why it matters for our Christian lives.
What Is a Benediction?
A benediction is a blessing. This is the simplest definition, and it is the one thing we need to remember. The word is taken from the Latin meaning “blessed.” For example, the Song of Zechariah (found in Luke 1:68-72) is often referred to as “The Benedictus.” This is because the Latin rendering of these verses opens with the phrase; “Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel” (Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel). In a benediction, one offers a prayer of blessing. Either one blesses “The Lord, the God of Israel”, or one extends a blessing upon an individual or a community.
Benedictions are commonly rooted in Scripture, and there are many different examples of this. The most popular is the blessing of Aaron found in Numbers 6:22-26. This benediction reads: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” God specifically instructs Aaron, as the priest of Israel during the time of the Exodus, to bless the people in this form. Many pastors and priests still use this form today. Another popular benediction is simply referred to as “The Blessing.” The words are “The blessing of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be upon you this day, and forevermore.” Often a sign of the cross is made over the person or congregation being blessed. This blessing is a call for God’s triune presence to surround the individual or the congregation.
Still, understanding that benediction means blessing only gets us so far. This begs the question, “What is a blessing?” A blessing is an authoritative pronouncement of God’s presence, favor, and activity. It is a statement made, not a request asked. This means that when you sit in church, and the time of the benediction comes, take a moment to sit and receive these words. The benediction is a powerful moment where you are invited to realize the truth of God’s presence and activity.
The purpose of a benediction is to declare a reality. It speaks a spiritual fact about your life. In the words of the Aaronic Benediction – the reality being declared is the active and loving presence of God. God smiles upon you, God turns his face toward you so that nothing in your life is outside God’s care or concern. The benediction is a statement that describes the spiritual atmosphere encapsulating your life. Upon hearing the words of the benediction, no one should doubt God’s intimate and loving care. It is a reality we are invited to experience that very moment.
Who Can Give a Benediction?
As Christian people, we are called to bless others. After all, Jesus commands us all to “bless those who curse you.” (Luke 6:28). Yet, too often today, the words “God bless you” roll off our tongues without a moment of thought or prayerful consideration. We tie the words to automatic responses for sneezes or hiccups. Thus, the idea of blessing another person seems quaint and ordinary.
A benediction is anything but ordinary. The availability for any believer to give a benediction does not lessen its importance. As Christian people, we must recognize how powerful this action is. Imagine how impactful it can be to hear another person declare God’s presence and activity upon their life. Imagine hearing this if you are at a point in life where you doubt whether God cares for you at all. When we say to someone “The Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine upon you”, we are declaring, in that moment and amid all life’s ups and downs, God’s loving light is directed upon their life. When we see the benediction this way, how can we not recognize the awesome privilege tied to such a proclamation?
Blessing others is never about ourselves. A benediction is never rooted in a person’s own power. When Aaron is instructed to bless the Israelites, the authority and power to do so rest, not in his own person, but in his role as priest over Israel. He speaks not as “Aaron,” but as the representative between God and the people. When we bless others, we bear the truth of God’s Word for them.
This is also true when we think of the formal benedictions in a church service. When the pastor or priest speaks the benediction, they are not speaking out of their own voice. That is, the blessing is not rooted in the authority of “Reverend So-and-So.” Rather, what is being heard is the blessing of God spoken from the Church, the Body of Christ worldwide and universal, spanning all time and space. Scripturally, this flows from Christ’s response to Peter when he says; “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The point here is that the power of “the keys” rests not in the individual but in the corporate Body of Christ. The priest or pastor, speaking a benediction, stands in the flow of apostolic authority and ministry, and it is only from that place that a benediction is spoken.
This is important because there may be times where we become so riddled with our own discouragements that we doubt God’s blessings on our lives. In these instances, we need to hear an encouraging word, not simply from a brother or sister in the faith, but from the Church itself. This does not suggest that the blessing made by a believer is of lesser quality than the blessing offered by a priest or pastor – again, it’s not about us! Yet we must acknowledge that, in these cases, receiving the pronouncement of our blessedness from someone who represents the entire apostolic witness of the church, can be incredibly healing.
Why Should You Pay Attention to the Benediction?
The benediction, then, encourages us in our Christian life. The end of a church service is not simply the time to return into the dynamics of worldly life, it is also a point of sending. Having received the benediction, we are now sent out into the world with the divine mandate to bear witness to the resurrection. Each time a church service ends, we are commissioned for ministry and mission. Thus, the words of the benediction remind us that we never live our Christian lives in our own power. The Holy Spirit empowers us to bear witness to the love and grace of Jesus.
At times, this can be a daunting task, particularly if we are feeling spiritually discouraged. After all, there are times when we come to church feeling rushed and harried. Either the traffic was bad, the children were fussy, or the morning routine was interrupted. We burst through the doors feeling unprepared to worship. At other times we might come to church feeling desperately alone like we have hit a wall in our spiritual lives and don’t know where to uncover the love of Jesus.
Again, in these times, listen to the benediction. The benediction addresses us. The pronouncement is made; “You are not alone,” “Jesus goes with you,” and “God the Father smiles upon you.” This is the atmosphere in which you live, and move, and have your being. Such blessings are not simply nice things the church says, these are realities declared about our lives. What is more, these truths go with us as we exit the church every Sunday morning.
We would do well to pay attention to the benediction. No matter who we are, or what we are going through, we are called to receive these words as bold declarations about our lives. The benediction speaks the truth over us. In that very moment as the words ring in our ears, spiritually we receive the enriching presence of God, and the assurance of his power working for us. Of that, we can be assured.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/deviousrlm
Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.