Here in the South we always bless our food before we eat. Heck, we don’t just bless food, we bless everything. We bless you when you sneeze. We bless your day when we see you, and we even hang up kitschy signs in our homes to “bless this mess.” So, it’s part of our cultural heritage to believe that blessings matter and have meaning. We don’t bless with gestures or with holy water but with words. Yet, we often seem to throw the words around as if they have the power to make people and things holy, a sprinkling with verbal hyssop if you will. For us Reformed types these ritualistic, almost unconscious acts of blessing set off our superstition alarms. What are we doing blessing people and things anyway? We aren’t priests. And, didn’t God make everything good? Didn’t he say “and it was good.” If we take it upon ourselves to bless our food and our day, doesn’t this imply that there is something bad about what God has called good?
Let’s reflect on this for a moment. Recall what St. Paul says in his first letter to Timothy:
For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving; For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer. ~1 Tim. 4:4
Wait. What? Every creature is good, but it must be sanctified by the word and by prayer? What does that mean? How can my food be both good and in need of sanctification? And, what does it even mean to “sanctify” food? It’s the Roman Catholics who sanctify things by human words and actions, right? Not Protestants. Well, let’s allow God’s word to speak for itself. Paul very clearly says “it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.” Well, you might say, how did the Reformers understand what Paul is saying here? Surely they had a way of demystifying this verse. Well, yes and no.
Calvin explains that things, people, and places need to be sanctified, NOT because they are evil, and NOT because we have a magical ability to change things by our blessings. Yet, we do have the ability to change things.
For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer. This is the confirmation of the preceding clause, if it be received with Thanksgiving…Paul testifies that it consists of “the word of God and prayer.” But it ought to be observed, that this word must be embraced by faith, in order that it may be advantageous; for, although God himself sanctifies all things by the Spirit of his mouth, yet we do not obtain that benefit but by faith. To this is added “prayer;” for, on the one hand, we ask from God our daily bread, according to the commandment of Christ, (Matthew 6:11;) and, on the other hand we offer thanksgiving to Him for His goodness.
Now Paul’s doctrine proceeds on this principle, that there is no good thing, the possession of which is lawful, unless conscience testify that it is lawfully our own. And which of us would venture to claim for himself a single grain of wheat, if he were not taught by the word of God that he is the heir of the world? Common sense, indeed, pronounces, that the wealth of the world is naturally intended for our use; but, since dominion over the world was taken from us in Adam, everything that we touch of the gifts of God is defiled by our pollution; and, on the other hand, it is unclean to us, till God graciously come to our aid, and by ingrafting us into his Son, constitutes us anew to be lords of the world, that we may lawfully use as our own all the wealth with which he supplies us.
Justly, therefore, does Paul connect lawful enjoyment with “the word”, by which alone we regain what was lost in Adam; for we must acknowledge God as our Father, that we may be his heirs, and Christ as our Head, that those things which are his may become ours. Hence it ought to be inferred that the use of all the gifts of God is unclean, unless it be accompanied by true knowledge and calling on the name of God; and that it is a beastly way of eating, when we sit down at table without any prayer; and, when we have eaten to the full, depart in utter forgetfulness of God.
Calvin confirms that things aren’t bad. We are. We are a race of cursed kings. We were cursed when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, and the curse didn’t just go away. It infected all of us, and what’s worse we are still constantly abusing God’s perfect creation. This is why dogs bite and snakes strike at us. They don’t need to be blessed. We do. We relinquished our right to use and enjoy the things that God has made when we were born traitors by traitorous parents.
Despite this state of affairs, we have been given the power to turn the curse into a blessing. We bless our food, our day, and each other by praying over them in the name of Jesus because he is the one who removes the curse. He is the one who became cursed for us. For, “cursed is the one who hangs upon a tree.” His resurrection removes the curse, and promises to remove the thorns, the fear, and death itself, “far as the curse is found” as Isaac Watts wrote. As long as we are blessing things with faith and in the name of Jesus then they are truly consecrated or sanctified, that is, they are set apart for holy use and they truly become holy to us. They no longer curse and condemn us. They no longer act as signs of our death and destruction. Rather they are holy signs. They are signs of God’s favor that truly bless. Through faith we have this power of blessing because God has made us “lords of the world.”
If this is true of every day objects and relations, then how much more is it true of the things we bless in Christ’s name as we worship Christ together? Calvin continues:
And if such sanctification is demanded in regard to common food, which, together with the belly, is subject to corruption, what must we think about spiritual sacraments? If “the word,” and calling on God through faith, be not there, what remains that is not profane? Here we must attend to the distinction between the blessing of the sacramental table and the blessing of a common table; for, as to the food which we eat for the nourishment of our body, we bless it for this purpose, that we may receive it in a pure and lawful manner; but we consecrate, in a more solemn manner, the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, that they may be pledges to us of the body and blood of Christ.
If we receive a blessing through our blessing of common food in the name of Christ, then how much more of a blessing should we receive from the food that Christ gives us for Holy Communion. For, Christ does not just work to bless this food in a general way. He puts his very name upon it, calling it “my body” and “my blood.” In other words, the blessing of communion bread and wine doesn’t just remove the curse, it grants us union and communion with Christ himself. In the Supper we receive not only a blessing, but the blessed one Himself. We don’t just retrieve the right to eat mere bread. Rather, in the blessing of communion bread and wine God restores to us the right to take the Son himself and feed on him by faith. We receive this right again through Christ and through faith, but also through our prayers of blessing.
So, go and bless the world. Bless your food and everything that you use with the word and with prayer. For God has made us lords of the world through the might and power of his Son our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
As a postscript, here’s a prayer of blessing for a meal that Calvin wrote for the church in Geneva, for your use and enjoyment:
O LORD, in whom is the source and inexhaustible fountain of all good things, pour out thy blessing upon us, and sanctify to our use the meat and drink which are the gifts of thy kindness towards us, that we, using them soberly and frugally as thou enjoinest, may eat with a pure conscience. Grant, also, that we may always both with true heartfelt gratitude acknowledge, and with our lips proclaim thee our Father and the giver of all good, and, while enjoying bodily nourishment, aspire with special longing of heart after the bread of thy doctrine, by which our souls may be nourished in the hope of eternal life, through Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN.