If you were asked to identify the oldest part of our Lutheran worship service you might logically think of the various scriptural readings, and those are indeed very old since the newest parts of our Bible were written nearly 2000 years ago. Others might think of speaking or singing a Psalm, and that is certainly a very ancient custom, with a great many of them attributed to King David, who reigned about 3000 years ago. But the part of our worship which has been practiced the longest is the benediction which the Pastor typically pronounces over the congregation at the close of the service.
The word ‘benediction’ is from the Latin and literally means “good speak.” In liturgical use, the benediction is a brief invocation of God’s blessings, help, or guidance. Unlike a prayer which asks for these blessings from God, a benediction pronounces them as an outpouring of God’s grace. Or to put it a different way, whereas a prayer is typically a request, a benediction is a promise – a statement of God’s love and intent to care for His people.
The Biblical practice of bestowing spoken blessings is extremely ancient, with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each being recorded as pronouncing them on their children. Even before that, we have the example of Abram (later known as Abraham) receiving a blessing from Melchizedek, the king of Salem and the “priest of God most high” (Genesis 14:17-20).
The use of a blessing/benediction in formal worship dates back to the time roughly 3500 years ago when the Children of Israel were wandering in the Sinai desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt. During this time, God gave Moses specific and detailed instructions on how the people were to worship Him. The priests designated to lead the worship were the descendants of Aaron (the brother of Moses who functioned as his “right-hand man”) and God gave this instruction:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ”Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: 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.’
So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:22-27)
This is often called the ‘Priestly Blessing’ because it was pronounced by the Jewish priests. It is also commonly referred to as the ‘Aaronic blessing,’ but by whatever name, it is a beautiful promise of God’s loving relationship to His people.
This isn’t the only benediction we use in our worship, but for many of us it is our favorite with its ancient image of God’s face beaming upon us. But it would be a mistake to think of the benediction as just reassuring words that make us feel good. You see, when a benediction is pronounced on God’s people, it is done with the authority of Almighty God Himself – the same power that brought the universe into existence by His Word. Blessings made in the name of God aren’t just ‘pious hopes,’ they are commitments that will be realized!
So given the power of such a benediction, it may come as a surprise that we don’t restrict who can pronounce them. One of Martin Luther’s most important concepts was the “priesthood of all believers.” This is the Biblical teaching that, through Christ’s death and resurrection, any believer now has complete access to God without the need to go through a priest or other go-between. One consequence of this is that just as we can pray for each other, we can also pronounce a blessing in God’s name and such a blessing has the full authority of our Lord.
How can this be? As limited and flawed creatures, how can we wield such power? The answer is very simple: the power is not ours to dispense blessings; rather it is the power of God’s promises which we repeat to each other in His name. So when God’s benediction is pronounced over us, we are the assured recipients of His promised blessings.