What's the Good Word?
Why the benediction matters.
Being the pastor of a small congregation, I’ve been tasked with putting together the Sunday bulletin. I will look at various websites that have liturgies available for use and I usually can find the call to worship, the invocation, and the confession. But there is one part of the worship service that I always have trouble finding: the benediction.
I ultimately do find benedictions, but they are few and far between. When I do find them, more often than not they seem to not be written as well as other parts of the worship service. Benedictions seem to be the red-headed stepchild of the liturgy.
When I was looking for articles about this topic, I noticed that many of the sources came from the evangelical tradition. So far, I’ve found few from more mainline traditions writing about the importance of the benediction. I’m not sure why that is.
I used to think that the benediction was a way to remind people to go into the world doing God’s work. That’s important as the congregation leaves to enter the “mission field” that is our everyday lives. But that’s really a charge to the congregation and not a benediction. Because what a benediction really is if we look at the word’s Latin origins is a good word or a blessing. When a pastor gives a benediction, they are giving the gathered community a blessing as they head out into the world.
The most famous benediction is what has been called the Aaronic blessing found in Numbers. You might be surprised to find that you already know it:
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.
We might look at these words as a throwaway line that is said at the end of a worship service, but the Aaronic blessing or any blessing can help people remember who they are and whose they are. Writing in Christianity Today, pastor Lee Eclov likens the blessing to a birthright that reminds us that we are children of God. He said the following:
A birthday is the perfect occasion because the Aaronic blessing is our birthright. When we are born again and adopted by God through Christ, these privileges become our possession. They come with the new name written in heaven.
I only recently sorted that out. At the end of the service recently I asked everyone to stand for the benediction. While they waited I said, "These words are your birthright. Peter said of us, 'Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.' These are the privileges of being God's people. This is who you are, thanks to Jesus Christ, and why we are different from all other people." Then I raised my hands over them and blessed them.
A few minutes later, Katerina waited for me in the foyer. She gripped my hand and with shining eyes said, "I have always heard the blessing at the end of the service, but this time the word birthright really got my attention. It changed the way I listened and received the blessing." She went on, "It made me feel so special. I saw myself like a child just born to a King, now entitled to her Father's riches. Thank you for saying that!"
This is who you are, thanks to Jesus Christ. We might think we are just something or someone, but in God’s eyes we are much more and the blessing reminds us of that. In an earlier essay, Eclov talks about how a benediction is a declaration like a vow that someone makes in a marriage ceremony. “It doesn't tell us what God will do for us, but what God is doing ever and always for his people. It is sort of an uber-promise.”
Think about that for a moment. A benediction is God speaking…to…us. It isn’t a wish, but it is a promise from God to us.
As pastors, we need to take the benediction far more seriously than we have in the past. People need to hear the “good word” from God in a time when our society seems to be falling apart with rising rates of addiction and mental illness. A benediction isn’t magic, but maybe knowing that God is with us and promises to be there for us is something that can help us as we make our way in this world of ours that is not okay.
In the movie, The Cider House Rules, based on John Irving’s novel of the same name, Dr. Wilbur Lynch played by Michael Caine tells the young boys in the orphanage the same phrase as they head to bed, “Goodnight, you princes of Maine and kings of New England.” The kids wonder at times why he says it and they come to the conclusion is his way of saying he loves them. These were kids that were the result of unwanted pregnancies. There is something meaningful in telling kids who might not feel wanted that they are more than their circumstances, far, far more.
The people sitting in our pews and chairs are sometimes dealing with the unimaginable: job loss. Cancer. Drug addiction. Families splintered over politics. A child dealing with mental illness. A benediction where they are told that God blesses them might be the balm that they need in a life filled with pain.
I might start writing some benedictions of my own. Since my husband is a composer, I might ask for his help. I will highlight the ones already found in the Bible as the one told centuries ago to Aaron and his descendants of priests. Either way, I want to make sure that people are receiving the Good Word from God.
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