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“…The Hand of God is held out in blessing for all who seek Him…”: On Seeking and Receiving the Blessing of Priests

July 7, 2013

Christ_Icon_Sinai_6th_centuryIt doesn’t require much proof-texting to show that in the Christian life, we should seek to walk humbly before God and our neighbor, strive to be as innocent children, try to acquire the fear of God, attempt to have a sense of gratitude for God’s blessings, and endeavor to have a sense of His holy presence in our lives. But for this to take place in day-to-day living, we need to be especially attentive to details in the life of piety, details that may seem not so significant when taken separately, but when taken as a whole can fill the very air we breath with a sweet spiritual fragrance that sinks into our very being, transforming us in the process. One such detail for those in the Orthodox Church is seeking the blessing of a priest with the humility, childlike innocence, fear of God, gratitude, and sense of the holy that can be discerned in so many passages in the Gospel.

This is not an old-fashioned religious form of greeting and has very little to do with the person who is a priest. It’s not about clericalism or traditionalism. Rather for an Orthodox Christian, the blessing from the priest is a mystery with liturgical power revealing the presence of “the hand of God held out in blessing for all who seek Him…” (Ezra 8:18b). The particular priest simply loans his hand to Christ who then uses it to bestow His blessing by tracing the sign of His Cross over the believer with the hand being held in such a way as the spell in Greek the initials for Jesus Christ (ΙΣΧΣ). The grace of the Cross and the power of the Name that is above all names is in this way received by believers as the greatest of blessings that will enable them to overcome every trial and tribulation. In humbly receiving that blessing, they are seeking the strength to be followers of Christ and called by His Name.

From psychology, we know that frequently repeated thoughts, emotions, and behaviors all contribute to the formation of our character and our personality. There are so many thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that we cannot control, which makes the ones we can control or direct extremely precious. Receiving the blessing of a priest is one area where we do have that control. In seeking the priest’s blessing whenever we see him, it is important that we attend what we think, how we feel, and what we do. In terms of thoughts, the priest’s presence allows us to receive from His hand precisely what we would so desire to receive from Christ’s very hand. If “he that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward,” how much more will the Christian receive the blessing directly from Christ if he receives the priest as he would receive Christ. For this reason, the believer who goes to receive the priest’s blessing have their minds filled with thoughts of Christ, their hearts filled with love for Christ, and their bodies ready to bow before Christ.

The mechanics of bowing first, then holding out our hands in crosswise fashion with the right hand over the left, asking the priest “Father bless” (or “Master bless” if he is a bishop), waiting for the sign of the cross to be made over us, and then kissing the hand that has handled the Lamb of God are important, but even more important is the feeling of devotion for Christ and the thought of gratitude to Christ that accompany this potentially liturgical and mysterious act between the soul and God. It is also important for us to keep in mind that these blessings are not given automatically, they must be sought out even as we saw in earlier posts concerning the Samaritan woman and the man born blind. It is a time for the exercise of human freedom for synergy with God.  Seeking the blessing from the priest is not unrelated to seeking, knocking, and asking in order to find, to have the door opened unto us, and to receive an answer from on high.
In truth, asking the blessing of a priest and kissing his hand is much more than a pious Orthodox custom. It can be an act of humble devotion to Christ Who ministers through the priest.  It can also be an acknowledgment of respect and devotion to the Holy Mysteries which the priest holds in his hands during the Divine Liturgy.  Saint John Chrysostom  once wrote that if one were to meet a priest walking along with an angel, that he should greet the priest first and kiss his hand, since that hand has touched the Body and Blood of our Lord. All of this is a matter of faith and a confession of faith, expressed in thought, word, and deed.

This simple act assists us in recognizing God is everywhere, in every encounter, and in every circumstance of our lives.  We perform this act as an expression of humble gratitude to God as the source of all blessings in this life.  As I’ve noted before in other posts, our daily actions impact our cognitive functioning and orient our thought life toward the Supreme Good and away from the fleeting desires and circumstances of this life. This is why the Church exhorts us to ask the blessing of a priest every time we encounter him.  These are the little opportunities for grace and healing God extends to us each day of our lives.  We should not neglect these moments for they are true spiritual gifts from a Heavenly Father who loves us and seeks communion with us.  Let us take every occasion to open our hands and our hearts to God’s Blessings, God’s Grace, and God’s Love:  “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes!

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