“The LORD said to Moses: ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them: This is how you shall bless the Israelites. Say to them: The LORD bless you and keep you! The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace! So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites, and I will bless them’" (Numbers 6:22-27).
These verses are proclaimed as we celebrate the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God. Some may scratch their heads in consternation. What does this reading have to do with today’s feast?
Actually the reading really speaks to the history of this celebration rather than to the subject of the celebration. January 1, known as New Year’s Day in the secular world, has been known by many other names in the liturgical realm. When I was a boy, long before St. John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, this day was known as the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. According to Jewish law, every male child was circumcised eight days after his birth. On this occasion, he was given his name. The Gospel for today’s feast recounts the event in the life of Jesus.
The most important verse of the first reading is the last verse in which God tells Moses that the Levites are to invoke God’s name upon the people of Israel. This is, in fact, what it means to bless someone. A blessing is simply a way to place God’s name on a person or a thing. When you are blessed, you are saying in effect, “I belong to God. I bear God’s name.”
What’s in a name? Quite a bit actually. In the culture of the Middle East, knowing someone’s name is crucial. When you know someone’s name, you know their past, their present and even a bit of their future. When Moses approaches the burning bush and is commissioned by God to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt, Moses insists on knowing God’s name. Armed with this knowledge, Moses knows that he is up to the task.
So important was this knowledge that Jewish people never speak God’s name. Rather than saying God’s name out loud, they substitute the word “Elohim,” which means “Lord.” Notice in the reading cited above that the word “Lord” appears in upper case letters. This is a signal to the reader that the text has been redacted. God’s name has been removed. “Lord” has been substituted for it.
Blessings are a big part of our Catholic culture. We bless ourselves when we enter a church. We bless our food when we sit down to eat. Religious objects are blessed after they are purchased. We conclude every liturgy and every prayer service with a blessing. When a child is brought to the church for baptism, the first thing that is done after learning the name that the parents have given the child is to sign the child with the cross on its forehead, to bless that child with the sign of our faith, to place God’s name on the child and claim it as God’s child.
As we begin this New Year and as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, born of a woman and taking on our human flesh, we begin by recalling that we belong to God. We place God’s name upon ourselves. We claim to be God’s own, God’s people, subjects of God’s love. Don’t hesitate to bless one another today. It is the best way to celebrate the New Year. Trace the cross on the foreheads of your loved ones today and bless them with God’s name as instructed in the Book of Numbers.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator