The word ‘liturgy’ derives from the Greek, and means ‘public service,’ or as many a Church catechist describes, “the work of the people.” It is regarded with great reverence in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where it is known as Divine Liturgy, a special significance to the celebration of the Eucharist. It’s a strange word to many church goers today, who more likely know the act as ‘Sunday Mass,’ and there’s a chance that such is the only experience they have with the liturgy. However, there are other liturgical events in the worship of the Catholic Church which all too often are carried out in front of a small and getting smaller group of witnesses.
One of the steadfast rules of the liturgy is that no feast day replaces the standard Sunday Mass, with few exceptions, and most of those are represented by dates that were once considered Holy Days of Obligation that have been reassigned to a particular Sunday to make them more accessible to the greatest number of faithful. The feast days of saints are not commemorated in the Sunday service. For that reason, too many people were unaware of the fading tradition associated with St. Blaise, a bishop and martyr, whose feast day is celebrated on February 3 annually.
The tradition associated with St. Blaise is the blessing of the throats. Once, people lined up like it was Ash Wednesday, in the fiercest final days of the winter chill, for this simple blessing, which calls for the intercession of the saint to ease ailments of the throat and other ills. Candles are crossed over the throat area, unlit, although in earlier days, they were, and the priest or designated minister reads the short blessing. Seems simple enough, and would also appear to be much in need during this particular winter that has been extraordinarily cold with an early and strong flu season. Who among us has so many blessings that they couldn’t use one like this? Unfortunately, some parishes in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and certainly elsewhere, did not offer this blessing in their community, and in fact, made no mention of it. There really is no requirement to do or mention, and another tradition passes away.
Although there are many tales of his miracles in Jacobus De Voragine’s The Golden Legend, they should not be considered reliable. One that is the basis for the blessing of the throats appears in other sources, as well.
Blaise was born into an affluent family, pursued his faith, and was elected a bishop at a very young age. The persecution under Roman Emperor Diocletian was in full swing, and the new bishop was forced to flee and become a hermit. He was eventually brought back from his cave, and on the way to prison was met by one of his parishioners, who pleaded with Blaise to help her son. The lad had a fishbone lodged in his throat and was slowly dying because of it. After the bishop laid hands on the boy and prayed over him, the victim was suddenly relieved of all ailments. The guards continued to lead Blaise to prison and reported having seen him work other healing miracles along the road.
When Blaise was placed in prison, he was tortured frequently, and eventually beheaded for refusing to deny his faith. Before his death, the woman whose son he had saved visited him and she brought two candles that became the symbol of the saint’s miraculous life.
Seven years ago, a small but dedicated group at an Albuquerque parish, were observing the rich tradition of Las Posadas, a novena commemorating the journey of Mary and Joseph that originated with St. Ignatius Loyola, was refined by St. John of the Cross, and has became a staple of the Mexican Catholic faith. Naturally that tradition became part of the southwestern United States when Spanish conquerors along with Franciscan priests entered New Mexico more than 400 years ago.
On this night, seven years ago, one observer commented on the small assembly, saying it’s too bad the tradition has to die, but the young people aren’t interested in carrying it on. Las Posadas ended after one more year at that parish…not enough people interested to make it happen.
Sure, the world is dynamic, and all things change, even the Church, but when that change involves excluding things that provided a rich heritage to Catholics of the past, it becomes the ‘work of the people’ to resurrect that faith practice. It only requires being interested enough to make it happen. In some European countries, St. Blaise is given almost national holiday status. Shouldn’t we make sure that his prayer and blessing remain with us here, as well?