The following story is true. The names have been changed to protect the identities of my relatively innocent co-conspirators.
I guess I was about 6 years-old, maybe 7, when my best friend from down the street, Sarah, acquired two kittens. Her mom had found these two little grey furballs curled up together under their deck and, after carefully searching for signs of the mother cat, she had concluded that these two must have been left behind. They were scrawny and yowling, but sociable enough to win you over, and they soon became an adored part of the family.
It was summer, so I had all sorts of time on my hands to go trekking down the street to visit these new additions to Sarah’s family. Once it became clear that both would survive, Sarah’s mom told her that she should come up with names for the pair. So it happened that Sarah and I were sitting on the deck one afternoon searching through baby name books and my well-loved Children’s Book of the Saints for the perfect names as the two tabbies wrestled with each other for dominance. Eventually we settled on Jake and Angelica, just as the fighting reached its climax and our dear Angelica bit into Jake’s ear hard enough to send him scrambling for cover in Sarah’s arms.
That was when we decided to baptize the kittens. Now, let me say here that neither of us were particularly religious children, but I had recently seen my youngest brother baptized, and although it didn’t seem to do him much good (he screamed and screamed), neither of us could bear the thought of Jacob and Angelica wandering lost in the dark captivity of feline paganism. And given their recent pugnacious behavior, they clearly needed Jesus.
So we went to work, gathering all the materials we would need. Sarah’s grandmother’s doilies became the most precious christening outfits – sort of lacy kitty kat capes, if you will. I filled a little bowl with water for the sprinkling. (In hindsight, it seems that both the kittens and I were fortunate that my family didn’t come from a background that believed in full immersion.) Sarah and her brother Andrew would be the madrina and padrino – the godparents – and, as the officiant, I briefly instructed them in their responsibilities to bring these kittens up to live in harmony with each other and others.
In the end, it was a simple ceremony. We wanted to sing a hymn, but we realized we didn’t know any hymns in common, so we sang the refrain of “You are my Sunshine, My Only Sunshine” as Andrew brought forth the candidates for baptism, squirming in their lacy christening dresses.
“Name this cat,” I intoned solemnly. Sarah and Andrew giggled as they held forth Angelica and then Jake for me to gently sprinkle their foreheads, repeating, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
For the record, I would do no more baptizing or pet blessing until I was ordained.
I tell this story today, because our readings over the next two weeks will focus on the meaning of blessing and baptism. And today I want to talk about blessing, because I think our society has a particularly anemic sense of blessing.
Some everyday examples of the erosion of our understanding of blessing:
While the common phrase, “God bless you” extended to another person who had just sneezed might have meant in pre-modern times, “May God protect you from the powers of evil,” today it usually means something more like, “I’m socially astute, and this is what people say when someone sneezes” or more negatively, “O good grief, I hope you haven’t got a cold.”
Or consider the sorts of pictures that would come up on social media if one were to search #blessed: new cars, new stuff, rich foods.
Today, we live in a culture that is more fluent in the language of affirmation and accusation than in the language of blessing.
In the Scriptures, there is more at stake in blessing than we commonly allow. Blessing is not as simple as well-wishing. To be blessed is not just to have a good thing happen to you. Instead, as we find in our reading from Numbers, blessing is about presence, relationship, and power.
At this point in Numbers, the Israelites have been camped out in the wilderness at Sinai for some time. At the mountain there, they have experienced God’s presence like never before. Now, they are getting organized to decamp and continue their journey, but will the God who revealed himself powerfully to them at Sinai continue to be present to them as they move? They have built a tabernacle, a sign of God’s presence with their encampment, according to God’s instructions to Moses. But God also speaks to Moses and tells Aaron to put God’s mysterious and unutterable name on the Israelites and assures that he will bless them. Blessing here is God’s way of being present with the people, God’s way of showing up and showing what God is up too – even in the midst of suffering and struggle.
The imagery in Aaron’s blessing is all about relationship. The Lord make his face to shine upon you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you. Blessing is that which brings us face to face with the Lord who reveals himself and yet remains mysterious, shining. The face-to-face work of blessing teaches us our own identity and belovedness, just as a child learns language and connection from her mother’s own expressive face. Rowan Williams writes that, “all true forms of personal knowing and mutual honoring occur in a face-to-face relationship between persons. It is by being lovingly faced by another that the individual self becomes a soul.” In blessing, God turns toward God’s beloved creation, and we like sunflowers turning to face the sun are drawn toward God’s mysterious and life-giving light.
I think I felt it back then even in our experimental cat-tism, but I have felt it more intensely in times since when I have laid a hand on a waiting brow in acknowledgment of the sacredness of the other. Marilynne Robinson writes, “the sensation [of blessing] is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.”* It is facing each other in this knowing of God’s presence in the other.
How would our lives, and families, and communities be transformed if we spoke the language of blessing more often and lingered in this recognition of God’s presence?
This is the kind of blessing that we need for our journey when we decamp and head into the unknown of 2017.
This is the blessing that we need so that our lives may not be so driven by anxiety about what we lack, but rather that we may be emboldened by the hope in God’s presence among us.
This is the blessing that empowers us to go out from here into a world that scarcely recognizes its own sacredness to do the work of the one who puts his name on us.
You shall say to them,
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
Go, name, and bless.
*n.b. Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead is essentially an extended meditation on blessing. It too contains the story of a cat-tism. I guess this is just something that kids who will someday become clergy do. May all cats be appropriately warned.