This sermon arises out of today’s theme, which is about Celtic music. I’m reflecting on my own Celtic roots and the Celtic roots of one part of the United Church.
In a little book I’ve come to love, Celtic Christian Spirituality: Essential Writings Annotated & Explained, there’s a chapter called Blessing as a Way of Life. The little explanation at the beginning of the chapter written by Mary Earl, begins:
“Throughout the writings and prayers that we receive from the Celtic Christian tradition, life is known as a blessing and a gift. We come from the Holy One, whose essence is infinite goodness…. What is it to walk in blessing? …we are living in a growing awareness of God’s presence and mercy, extended to us with infinite wisdom and grace, because of who God is. We bless God by becoming aware of God’s mercies and goodness to us, receiving that mercy and goodness, and allowing our lives to be transformed into active blessing of others.”
For example, in an ancient Celtic book, it is written:
God, bless to me this day,
God, bless to me this night
Bless, O bless, Thou God of grace,
Each day and hour of my life;
Bless, O bless, Thou God of grace,
Each day and hour of my life.
God, bless the pathway on which I go.
God, bless the earth that is beneath my sole;
Bless, O God, and give to me your love,
O God of gods, bless my rest and my repose;
Bless, O God, and give me your love,
And bless, O God of gods, my repose.
I’m not sure where I first came upon this understanding of life as “blessing.” It wasn’t really part of my upbringing, church or otherwise. As long as I can remember, I’ve appreciated the life around me; maybe I haven’t always lived each day as a blessing, but my overall sense of life is that God infuses our lives with a spark of light and love through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
When I first reflected on the idea of blessing at Jubilee, I recalled two special blessings I received in my last sabbaticals—at the Taizé community in France and then in 2013, at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Namche Bazar in Nepal. They were special because I didn’t go looking for them.
By the time I got to Mountain Lake, I was thinking about three other special blessings I’ve received over my lifetime. And then, after further consideration, that expanded to almost 10 special moments of intentional blessing in my life. That doesn’t include all of the other special moments.
When Janet and I got married, we received a quadruple blessing; we had four ministers blessing us: the parish priest of Janet’s family Anglican Church, Janet’s father, an Anglican priest, my dad, a United Church minister, and my grandfather, also a United Church minister; mom hadn’t been ordained, yet. The other significant moments were my confirmation—I don’t remember my baptism—my ordination, the birth of my children, and other moments in our congregation and in Ontario.
Interestingly, the English word, “eulogy,” is related to one of the Greek words in the Christian Scriptures that means blessing. So, when a eulogy is offered, it is a way of blessing the person who has died. But more broadly, this form of blessing means to “bestow favour on” or “make holy” everyday things like bread or wine or everyday tasks; we share a eulogy to give thanks for another person’s life, but also to be reminded that each life is precious.
Another Greek word in the New Testament that means “blessing” is a word that can be translated “happy,” “honoured,” and “made holy,” as in the blessings we hear about in the beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel. This, too, conveys the idea that in God’s love and compassion, each life is precious.
And yet a third word in the New Testament is related to a word that means joy, gift and to make glad. So, in this way, a blessing makes glad the one for whom the blessing is given. But, more deeply, it is a call to live more fully into the gifts of our lives to seek out ways to make the gift of blessing larger in the world.
John O’Donohue, an Irish priest, poet, writer of Celtic Spirituality, who died 11 years ago at the age of 52, has had a lot of influence on our ideas of blessing. The Celts, as I mentioned earlier, in general, saw the importance of reminding themselves that God is part of our everyday tasks and life. So, there’d be blessings for milking the cow, lighting the fire for the day, a birth, a death, harvests, entering another’s house, a journey, and so on.
O’Donohue has written, “The word blessing evokes a sense of warmth and protection; it suggests that no life is alone or unreachable. Each life is clothed in the attire of the Spirit that secretly links it to everything else. Though suffering and chaos befall us, they can never quench that inner light of blessing. In the parched deserts of our world, a blessing can be like the discovery of a fresh well of water.”
The Rev. Murray Binsted, who was an older minister in the United Church nearing retirement and was 30 minutes away, once told me when I was a newly minted minister trying to put all I’d learned at seminary into practice, “David, all you need to remember is that your job is to offer a blessing. You bless someone in the hospital, at a home visit, when you marry a couple, when you conduct a funeral, when you offer a sermon, when you lead in worship, when you teach and when you speak out for justice. Your job is to remind people that life is a blessing, that their lives are a blessing—even in times of distress and struggle.” I’ve paraphrased his word, but the essence of the meaning has stuck with me. And I went to seminary for four years!
So, I leave you with words again from that ancient sourcebook of Celtic spirituality:
God’s blessing be yours,
And well may it befall you;
Christ’s blessing be yours,
And well be you entreated;
Spirit’s blessing be yours,
And well spend you your lives,
Each day that you rise up,
Each night that you lie down.