Friday, August 11, 2023

Blessings on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Guido Reni, The Assumption of Virgin Mary, 1638-9
Lost in Translation #82

The Assumption is traditionally the most important Marian feast of the year. Accompanied by grand festivities and processions (that simulated her journey to Heaven), it also was a favorite time for blessings.

In Austria and the Alps, the nearby meadows and farms would be blessed; in maritime countries (including the U.S.), it was the ocean and the fishing fleet. Two communities in coastal Georgia and parts of Cajun Louisiana still keep this custom--the Louisiana custom has a brief cameo in Robert Duvall’s 1997 film The Apostle, and a Louisiana blessing of the fleet was featured in a post last year on this website.
In Armenia, it is a fine time to bless the grapes. “No one would dream of tasting the new harvest,” writes Fr. Francis X. Weiser, S.J., “before consuming the first blessed grapes on Our Lady’s Day.” [1]
An Armenian priest blesses grapes on the Feast of the Assumption
In England, Ireland, and other parts of Europe, it was good luck to take a dip in the sea, a river, or a lake, as “Our Lady’s Health Bathing” would obtain good health through her intercession. Farms, orchards, fields, gardens, and livestock would also be blessed on this special day.
But the one blessing (or series of blessings) that found its way into the Rituale Romanum was the blessing of herbs and fruits. It was once so popular that a city was named after it. Würzburg, Bavaria (“Spice-Herb Town”) is so called because it was a popular medieval center for the Assumption Day blessings. In Sicily, the faithful would abstain from fruit for two weeks prior to the Assumption and then, after the blessing, give each other fruit baskets. And in some parts of central Europe the feast was even called “Our Lady’s Herb Day” (Krautertag in German and Matka Boska Zielna in Polish). [2]
The blessing(s) in the Ritual is a solemn affair. After a recital of Psalm 64 (rich with allusions to God’s watering the earth and making it fecund), the priest prays:
Omnípotens sempitérne Deus, qui cælum, terram, mare, visibília et invisibília verbo tuo ex níhilo creásti, quique herbas, arborésque ad usus hóminum animaliúmque terram gígnere, et unumquódque juxta seméntem in semetípso fructum habére præcepísti; atque non solum ut herbæ animántibus ad victum, sed ægris étiam corpóribus prodéssent ad medicaméntum, tua ineffábili pietáte concessísti: te súpplici mente et ore deprecámur, ut has divérsi géneris herbas et fructus tua cleméntia benedícas, et supra naturálem a te índitam virtútem, eis benedictiónis tuæ novæ grátiam infúndas; ut ad usum homínibus et juméntis in nómine tuo applicátæ, ómnium morbórum et adversitátum efficiántur præsídium. Per Dóminum nostrum Jesum Christum, Fílium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitáte Spíritus Sancti Deus, per ómnia sǽcula sæculórum. [3]
Which I translate as:
Let us pray. Almighty, everlasting God, who by Thy Word hast created out of nothing heaven, earth, sea, things visible and invisible; who hast commanded the earth to bring forth herbs and trees for the use of men and animals and for them to have fruit each according to its kind; and who hast granted out of Thine ineffable mercy for these to serve not only as food for the living, but as medicine for sick bodies: with mind and mouth we humbly implore Thee to bless with Thy clemency these herbs and fruits of various kinds, and to pour forth upon their natural power already given by Thee the grace of Thy new blessing; that when used in Thy name on men and beasts, they may provide protection against all disease and adversity. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever.
A second blessing follows:
Deus, qui per Móysen fámulum tuum mandásti fíliis Israël, ut manípulos novórum frúctuum benedicéndos deférrent ad sacerdótes, tolleréntque fructus árboris pulchérrimæ, et lætaréntur coram te, Dómino Deo suo: adésto propítius invocatiónibus nostris, et infúnde tuæ benedictiónis abundántiam super nos, et super manípulos novárum frugum, novárum herbárum, et frúctuum collectiónem, quæ cum gratiárum actióne tibi repræsentámus, et in nómine tuo in hac sollemnitáte benedícimus; et concéde, ut homínibus, pecoríbus, pecudíbus et juméntis contra morbos, pestes, úlcera, malefícia, incantatiónes, venefícia serpéntum, et aliórum venenosórum animálium et bestiárum morsus, nec non quæcúmque venéna, remédium præstant; atque contra diabólicas illusiónes, et machinatiónes, et fraudes tutámen ferant, in quocúmque loco pósitum vel portátum aut hábitum áliquid ex eis fúerit: quátenus cum manípulis bonórum óperum, méritis beátæ Maríæ Vírginis, cujus Assumptiónis festum cólimus, quo ipsa assúmpta est, súscipi mereámur. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
O God, who through Moses Thy servant didst command the children of Israel to carry their sheaves of new fruits to the priests for a blessing, to take the finest fruits of the orchards, and to make merry before Thee, the Lord their God: Kindly hear our supplications, and pour forth the abundance of Thy blessing upon us and upon these sheaves of new grain and new herbs, and upon this assortment of fruits, which we gratefully present to Thee and which we bless on this feast in Thy name. And grant that men, cattle, sheep, and beasts of burden may find in them a remedy against sickness, pestilence, sores, injuries, spells, snake venom, and the bites of other venomous and non-venomous creatures. And may they bring protection against diabolical illusions, machinations, and deceptions wherever they are kept or carried, or with whatever arrangement is made of them: that with sheaves of good works and through the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary whose Feast of the Assumption we celebrate, we may deserve to be taken up to where she herself was assumed. Through our Lord.
The third blessing is:
Deus, qui virgam Jesse, Genetrícem Fílii tui Dómini nostri Jesu Christi, hodiérna die ad cælórum fastígia ídeo evexísti, ut per ejus suffrágia et patrocínia fructum ventris illíus, eúmdem Fílium tuum, mortalitáti nostræ communicáres: te súpplices exorámus; ut ejúsdem Fílii tui virtúte, ejúsque Genetrícis glorióso patrocínio, istórum terræ frúctuum præsídiis per temporálem ad ætérnam salútem disponámur. Per eúmdem Dóminum nostrum.
Which I translate as:
Let us pray. O God, who on this day didst raise up to the heights of heaven the rod of Jesse, the mother of Thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ, that through her prayers and patronage Thou mightest communicate to our mortality the Fruit of her womb, Thy Son: we humbly pray that by the power of Thy Son and the glorious patronage of His Mother, we may be so affected by the aid of these fruits of the earth as to proceed from temporal to eternal welfare. Through the same our Lord.
And finally, the final blessing:
Et benedíctio Dei omnipoténtis, Patris, et Fílii, et Spíritus Sancti, descéndat super has creatúras, et máneat semper.
Which I translate as:
And may the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, descend upon these creatures and remain forever.
The blessings are to some extent a recapitulation of sacred history. The first blessing recalls the original goodness of God’s creation and its beneficial use for humans even after the Fall. Even in a world of postlapsarian thorns and thistles, the Lord still provides from the land.
The second blessing pivots to the Mosaic Law, which has an annual Feast of First Fruits described in Leviticus 23, 10. Our own blessing of herbs and fruits on this Feast of Our Lady serves as a spiritual “fulfillment” of the jots and tittles of this old Law.
Given the Mosaic Law in the backdrop, it is fitting that this blessing is the most particular in its petitions, specifying a number of threats to human and animal health. It reads, in fact, like a medieval life insurance policy, making certain that no contingency is left out. Venomous snakes? We certainly want protection from them, but are there not non-venomous snakes that can still do harm to our chicken coop? And what about the non-venomous bites of large predators? To be safe, let us pray for protection from all bites.
The Latin West is often accused of “legalism,” and I am sure that its detractors would point to this blessing as Exhibit A, but nonetheless it is one of my favorites in the Rituale. The specificity does not indicate a lack of trust in God but an awareness of the dangers around us, both physical and spiritual (its list of diabolical and occult threats is also impressive). If you have, like our medieval forebears, lived in nature or are directly vulnerable to its sometimes mercurial turns, you have a heightened appreciation for our dependence on the Almighty.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve, detail, (1508-1512)
The third blessing transitions from the Old Covenant to the New by beginning with a Hebraic reference to Our Lady as the rod of Jesse and then moving to Her role in the economy of salvation as the tree that bore the Fruit that save us. The blessing asks that we may proceed from temporal goods to eternal, a movement that imitates the Blessed Virgin's upward assumption into Heaven.
The final blessing uses a common formula for invoking the Holy Trinity. The word creaturae is somewhat difficult to translate. It literally designates, as I have translated it, “creatures,” that is, products of a Creator, be they animate or inanimate. In this context, the creatures are the herbs and fruits being blessed, and maybe the people who brought them. But the most common usage of “creature” in the English language is for a living animal, e.g., “woodland creatures.” And today the word can even have sinister connotations, e.g., the Creature from the Black Lagoon. (And long ago in Scotland, to have “a bit of the creature” before bedtime meant having a snort of intoxicating liquor).
Altogether the blessings offer an invitation to meditate on the Blessed Virgin Mary, fruit, and us. Eve foolishly used herbs (fig leaves) to hide and aggravate her sin, thereby perpetuating the disorder that her sin had introduced to both body and soul. By contrast, the “new Eve” Mary, whose soul and body are untouched by sin or the decay of death (as we celebrate on Assumption Day), foreshadows a complete healing of our frailties, a healing represented by herbs. Likewise, fruits are an appropriate symbol for Mary the new Eve because she never ate of the forbidden fruit of sin but brought forth only the fruit of good works and, most importantly, the Fruit of her womb, Jesus Christ. The fruit blessed today thus betokens the fruit of a holy and generous life which we are called to enjoy from our Lord through the patronage of His mother.

[1] Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1958), 290.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Benedictio herbarum in festo assumptionis B. Mariae Virg., in RR 1953, Tit. IX, cap. iii, no. 14, pp. 424-428 [pp. 436-440], §§1421-1435, here §1433, translation mine.

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