Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Blessing of Throats

I had my throat blessed this morning. Yes, this is the annual day when we practice that wonderful tradition! I had a noontime meeting to attend today. So I could not be present myself to help my associate bless throats after Mass. However, to accomodate the many who could not get away from work or wherever to coem to church for the blessing today, we will be repeating the blessing after all the Sunday Masses this weekend. So I will get plenty of opportunities to confer the blessing. It's one of my favorite sacramentals. I think it's really one of the nicest things we get to do in the course of the church year.

Under the appropriate circumstances, almost anything and anyone can be blessed, but this particular annual blessing has a particular popularity - and persistence - virtually unequaled. Over the centuries, the Church's catalogue of annual blessings has included all sorts of things, such as horses on St. Stephen's Day and wine on St. John the Evangelist's Day, not to mention bonfires on the Eves of St. John the Baptist and All Saints. Most of those blessings are barely even known among the faithful today. The blessing of St. Joseph's Table and the blessing of Easter Food remain popular in certain places, particularly among certain ethnic communities. But, of all the traditional annual blessings, the one most persistently popular and most widely practiced in the United States is surely today's blessing of throats. What accounts for this?

According to tradition, St. Blaise, in whose memory throats are annually blessed on his feast day, was an Armenian physician, who became a bishop and was martyred early in the 4th century, and who supposedly healed a boy who was choking to death from fish bone. Devotion to him (and his healing powers) spread widely in both the eastern and western churches, which celebrate his memory on February 11 and February 3 respectively. In the medieval west, he achieved particular popularity as one of the "14 Holy Helpers." Like most pre-modern life, medieval life was hard, and help from almost any source was much valued and sought after! Of course, life can still be very hard even today - especially when illness intervenes. Hence, the perennial appeal of healers. (For that reason I suspect that saints who acquired a reputation during their earthly lives as healers have a certain advantage in getting canonized, since their proven track record must be an incentive for people to continue to invoke their aid and pray for their intercession - thus possibly resulting in the necessary after-death miracles for beatification and canonization).

Miracles matter - not just in saint-making but in daily life, as long as life is hard and so much of it is beyond our control. Certainly sickness is one of the situations in which life repeatedly shows itself beyond our limited capacity to control. The blessing of throats intentionalizes the Church's prayer for the sick and highlights the Church's long-standing historical commitment to and involvement in healing ministries. The fact that St. Blaise was himself a physician certainly speaks to the spiritual significance of the ministry of healing and the social value of all healing professions - doctors, nurses, PAs, EMTs, etc.

Through the intercession of St. Blaise, Bishop and Martyr, may God deliver us from every disease of the throat and from every other illness: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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