A Meditation on the Priestly Prayer

Sermon for Sunday, January 1, 2017 || Feast of the Holy Name || Numbers 6:22-27

On this day the Western World calls “New Year’s” and the church calls the “Feast of the Holy Name,” I can think of nothing more appropriate than to have read God’s blessing delivered through Moses in the book of Numbers. Moses then gave it to his brother Aaron the priest, who spoke these words as a special priestly blessing:

“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.”

These are familiar words, so familiar in fact that we probably don’t even realize they come from the Bible. In the Episcopal tradition, we hear them when we gather around a grave and bid our loved ones farewell. We hear these words in the context of death and resurrection; they are a promise and a hope for new life in closer communion with God beyond the gate of death.

But this morning, on the feast of the Holy Name and New Year’s Day, we hear them in a different context. These words are not just for those who have died; they are for us, as well. So this morning, I’d like to continue the sermon as a meditation on this priestly blessing.

I invite you now to uncross any body parts you may have crossed. Put both feet on the floor. Find a comfortable a position as you can on the hard wood of the pew. Squeeze your toes together and make fists once or twice. Notice the release of tension that accompanies unfolding your hand. Find that place of calmness in your body now. Let your eyes close if you wish. Breath in through your nose. Fill your lungs without moving your shoulders. Exhale for twice as long as you inhaled. Answer God’s invitation this morning to hear God’s blessing anew.

The Lord bless you.
We say the word “bless” so often. Whenever a person sneezes, someone else invariably responds with “bless you” or even “God bless you.” This is wonderful because it brings blessing into our everyday speech. But such a practice also diminishes our contact with the true power of the invocation. Blessing. It can mean “approval.” It can mean “favor.” The boss gave us her blessing to start the project. In the Bible, blessing includes approval and favor, and it goes beyond both. When God blesses someone, God attaches a mission to the blessing. God blesses Abraham and Sarah to be blessings in the world by raising descendants who know God in the same way they do. We are some of their descendants, and God built their original blessings into our very DNA.

If you have difficulty seeing God’s blessing in your own life, try counting them each day. Realize how even the most mundane thing – shelter, food, clothing – is transformed when we view it through the eyes of blessing. If you still have difficulty seeing God’s blessing, try this little trick. The next time you say, “I was so lucky to…have such a wonderful mother” or “I was so lucky to meet my spouse on that particular train,” change the adjective. You weren’t lucky. You were blessed.

The Lord keep you.
An odd phrase it is. What do we keep that could shed light on this odd phrase? We keep each other’s company. We keep Sabbath, marking holy time. We keep old photographs in albums and shoeboxes. We keep baby clothes and kids’ art projects. We keep at it. We keep coming back for more. We keep secrets.

And the Lord keeps us. Not as a collector might, cataloging and sticking pins in and mounting us on acid-free paper. No, the Lord keeps us as a mother hen keeps her chicks safe under the shadow of her wing. The Lord keeps us and never throws anyone away.

The Lord make his face to shine upon you.
We immediately think of the sun shining, breaking through the clouds or  rising after a long and fretful night. It’s no wonder ancient peoples thought the sun was a god. The sun warms. The sun catalyzes life on this fragile earth as plants bend their branches to its light. God shines God’s face on us. And we bend toward that light. We incline our hearts. We unfurl the branches of our souls and drink in the nourishment.

What does God’s face look like? We do not know. But we do know what a loved one’s face looks like when they see us, when we gaze at each other, when love makes us radiant. Imagine that feeling now. How much more radiance will their be when we see the face of God, the creator of Love?

The Lord be gracious to you.
When we say the word “gracious” we often qualify it with the word “just.” Oh, I didn’t deserve that compliment. She was just being gracious. Just being gracious? Could there be anything better than grace? The band U2 sings, “Grace finds goodness in everything” and “Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.”

We call dancers graceful because they catch themselves in beautiful ways when they start to fall. To be gracious is to be the catching force. Feel yourself enfolded in the arms of grace. We will fall, but we will fall into the palm of God’s hand.

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you.
A deliciously ambiguous phrase it is. Once again we have the face of God, for countenance is a face or at least a facial expression. But countenance is also support, permission. Imagine again the face of that loved one. See their laugh lines, their crows’ feet, their lashes, the shape of their nose and curve of their chin. What does their face look like when they give you approval? A smile. A wink. A quiet nod.

God lifts up God’s countenance, which means God looks up at us. God is beneath, as well as above and within. Beneath us, God is the foundation, the strong rock, the crag, the stronghold, the castle to keep us safe. This foundation is the ground of our being, the starting place. And the ending place. But not an end as an old film might when the reel runs out. An end as a culmination, a commencement, which is really a new beginning.

The Lord give you peace.
We begin a new year with the close of the prayer: Give us peace. Dona nobis pacem. In this particular prayer, we do not ask for world peace, but peace only for ourselves. This is not selfish. Peace in the world will only happen when enough individual people come together to champion peace. Not just as the absence of war, but as the presence of justice, mercy, and hope.

Peace is the abiding presence of God, which is the summation of this prayer. Another year begins and the strife of the previous one will carry over, because war and conflict do not care about the calendar. But we need not bring our own strife with us. Leave the storms of the past in the past. Do not let them continue to have power in the present. Peace. Be still.

As people of peace, we are not passive, for we are also people of blessing, which means God has placed a mission in our paths. Accepting this mission we find a gracious God who will only let us fall into God’s hands. We find God’s face shining down on us, and God’s sure foundation steady beneath our feet.

Listen once again for the words of God spoken through Moses and Aaron, spoken to us and stitched onto our hearts. Rejoice and be glad, because these words are for you.

“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.”

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