January 1, 2006
In some parts of our country and many places throughout the world there is a custom which takes place on January 1st. In those localities children are expected to return home and receive a blessing from their parents. It is a lovely custom, mothers and fathers placing their hands on their children’s head whether their children are 5 years, 15 years or 50 years old. This custom is an invitation to you and me to begin this New Year with a blessing.
This certainly seems to be the mind of the church because on this first day of the New Year our first reading is a blessing, the famous blessing of Aaron from the book of Numbers. This is an ancient Jewish blessing. We can trace it back some 800 years before Christ’s birth. The blessing is simple and strong: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” The blessing is filled with powerful imagery: shining one’s face on someone is a way of expressing delight on the person who is beheld. This blessing tells us that God delights in us and in our presence. Lifting up one’s countenance to another person is a way of saying that the gaze creates a bond. This prayer tells us that there is a bond between us and God that cannot be broken. This blessing of Aaron is a beautiful blessing, and we should make it our own.
In order to do this, I would like to clarify what a blessing is and what it is not. I think many of us have a mechanical and perhaps a magical notion of a blessing. When we bless a person, a house, an automobile, a religious medal, we do not believe we are changing that person, place or thing—as if before the words were spoken that thing was unblessed. Nor do we believe that a blessing prayer changes God—as if before the words were spoken God was unwilling to be gracious or give us peace. We do not believe that our blessing prayers change God or the person, places or things we bless. What we believe blessings do is give thanks to God for the goodness that is already present in a person, place or thing. Blessings celebrate what our world is and who we are.
And who are we? Today’s second reading makes it clear. Paul says, “You are no longer a slave, but a child and if a child, also an heir through God. Paul says we are children of God. We are those who are to inherit eternal life. Now, it was not our blessing prayers that made us so. God made us so. We are already blessed because God created us and saved us and made us God’s own. Every time we bless one another we celebrate who we are and we remind one another we are truly children of God.
So this is why it is a good idea to begin 2006 with a blessing. To begin this year by reminding our self who we are, that we have been blessed with life, with salvation and a future. We need to remember that we are the people who believe that God will be gracious to us, that God will give us peace. We are children of God. How important it is for us to claim our status and our dignity as we enter this New Year. If we look forward to the next 12 months with fear and pessimism, we must ask ourselves whether such negative feelings result from our failure to claim who God has made us to be.
Have we made mistakes? Of course we have. Have we sinned? Yes we have. But those mistakes and sins are not who we are. Have others hurt us or rejected us? Perhaps. But that hurt and rejection does not define our status. Are there losses in our life, people who have been taken from us, opportunities we have missed? Very likely. But none of those things negate who God has made us to be. So if we can claim who we are, who God has made us to be, if we can go forward believing in our goodness and God’s presence with us, 2006 can be a very good year.
So let us begin this New Year with a blessing. Let me suggest to parents that they consider blessing their children as the year begins. It can be done very simply, placing your hands on children’s head, saying a prayer in your own words or using the blessing of Aaron from the first reading. Perhaps it could be done before dinner as your family gathers today. But take that moment so that your children know that you give thanks to God for them and that they have a dignity and a status as children of God.
And since there may be some of here whose parents are not be close at hand, I would like to end this homily today with a blessing in which we can all share. So I ask you please to stand. Please remain standing after the blessing in silence until the liturgy continues. As I pray this blessing I ask that you to open your hearts to your true status as Children of God, that you allow yourselves to see the delight that God takes in your presence, and that you bring that dignity into the New Year.
Let us bow our heads and pray for God’s blessing.
“May God bless you and keep you.
May the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”