Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Blessing of Herbs on the Feast of the Assumption

According to a fairly ancient tradition, which St. John Damascene (among others) attests in the 8th century, when it came time for the Virgin Mary’s earthly life to end, all of the Apostles, then scattered over the earth to preach the Gospel, were miraculously brought to Jerusalem in an instant to be present for Her death. St Thomas, however, was late in arriving, as he had been late to witness the Lord’s Resurrection. When the Virgin had died, they laid Her body to rest in a tomb in the garden of Gethsemani, outside the city; three days later, when Thomas arrived in Jerusalem, he wished to venerate it. The Apostles went as a group to the tomb, but on opening it, discovered that Her body was no longer there, and a sweet odor came forth, confirming that (as Damascene writes) “Whom once it pleased to take the flesh from the Virgin Mary, and become a man, and be born (of Her)… and who after birth preserved Her virginity incorrupt, it also pleased, after Her passing, to honor Her immaculate body … by translating (it to Heaven) before the common and universal resurrection.”

The Oddi Altarpiece, by Raphael Sanzio, painted in 1502-3, when the artist was only 19 years old; now kept in the Painting Gallery of the Vatican Museums. Above, the Virgin is crowned by Christ, and surrounded by angels, four of whom are playing musical instruments; below, the Apostles are gathered around Her tomb, with some of them looking upwards and listening to the music. St. Thomas is in the middle of the group, with his head tilted back, and has received from the Virgin Her belt,; this relic is now, according to tradition, preserved in the cathedral of Prato, Italy. Her tomb is filled with flowers growing out of the stone; Raphael himself appears on the far right as one of the Apostles, wearing black and looking straight out at the viewer.
According to one version of this legend, the other eleven Apostles believed in the Assumption because angelic music played in the air over the tomb on the day of the burial, and for three days after; St. Thomas, arriving after the music had ceased, refused to believe them until the tomb was opened and the absence of the body confirmed. According to another version, Thomas already knew and believed in the Assumption before coming to Jerusalem, and brought the others to the tomb to show them that the Virgin’s body was gone; after which, they heard all the music together. A further addition to the story says that flowers were growing out of the stone sarcophagus in which She had been laid, and were the source of the sweet odor coming out of the tomb, confirming the Apostles’ faith in Her Assumption.

A stained glass window from Siena Cathedral by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1288. The central panels represent the death of the Virgin (below), the Assumption (middle) and Coronation (above.) The corners show the Four Evangelists, the middle panels on the left and right the patron Saints of the city.
In honor of this last part of the story, the Church instituted the custom of blessing wild herbs and flowers on the feast of the Assumption. The blessing originated in Germany, and is first attested in the 10th century; one version of it or another is found in a great many of the liturgical books which contain blessings of this sort. In the 1614 Roman Ritual of Pope Paul V, it consists of a psalm, a series of versicles and responses, three prayers, and the blessing, after which the flowers are sprinkled with holy water; the blessing is supposed to be done before the principal Mass of the day.

I here give the blessing in English translation; the Latin text is found in the Rituale among the blessings not reserved to bishops, shortly after the Sunday blessing of holy water and the Asperges. A free version can be downloaded from googlebooks by clicking this link; the blessing is on page 42*.

V. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R. Who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 64 is said in full.

V. The Lord will give goodness.
R. And our earth shall yield her fruit. (Ps. 84)
V. Thou waterest the hills from Thy upper rooms.
R. The earth shall be filled with the fruit of Thy works.
V. Bringing forth grass for cattle.
R. And herbs for the service of men.
V. That Thou may bring bread out of the earth.
R. And that wine may cheer the heart of man.
V. That he may make the face cheerful with oil.
R. And that bread may strengthen man’s heart. (Ps. 103)
V. He sent his word, and healed them.
R. And delivered them from their destructions. (Ps. 106)

V. Lord, heed my prayer.
R. And let my cry be heard by you.
V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with thy spirit.

Let us pray. Almighty everlasting God, who by Thy word created from nothing the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things visible and invisible, and commanded the earth to bring forth plants and trees for the use of men and beasts, and each one to have fruit in itself according to its seed; and in Thy ineffable goodness granted not only that the plants might serve as the food of living creatures, but also that they might profit ailing bodies as medicine; with mind and word we humbly pray Thee that in Thy clemency Thou may bless + these herbs and fruits of various kinds, and pour upon them the grace of Thy renewed blessing, above the natural power which Thou gavest them; so that, when used by men and beasts in Thy name, they may become a defense against every disease and adversity. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy son etc. R. Amen.

Let us pray. O God, who through Moses, Thy servant, commanded the children of Israel to bear sheaves of new fruits to the priests to be blessed, and to take the fruits of the finest trees, and rejoice before Thee, the Lord their God; in Thy mercy be present to our supplications, and pour forth the abundance of Thy bless+ing upon us and upon these bundles of new fruits, new herbs, and upon the gathering of fruits which we bring before Thee with thanksgiving, and on this solemn feast we bless in Thy name. And grant that they may give to men, cattle, flocks, and beasts of burden a remedy against sickness, pestilence, sores, curses, spells, against the poison of serpents and bites of other venomous animals. And may they bring protection against the devil’s illusions, and devisings and cunning, wherever they or any portion of them are kept and carried, or otherwise used; so that, with the sheaves of good works, by the merits of the blessed Virgin Mary, the feast of whose Assumption we keep, we may merit to be taken up to that place whither She was assumed. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy son etc. R. Amen.

Let us pray. O God, who on this day raised up to the heights of heaven the rod of Jesse, the Mother of Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, so that by Her prayers and patronage Thou might communicate to our mortal nature the fruit of Her womb, the same Thy Son; we humbly implore Thee, that by His power, and by the glorious patronage of His Mother, with the help of these fruits of the earth, we may be guided through temporal welfare unto everlasting salvation. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy son etc. R. Amen.

And may the blessing of almighty God, the Father, the Son, + and Holy Spirit, come upon these creatures and remain always. R. Amen.

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