In the Church’s rich liturgical tradition there used to be a whole host of special blessings celebrated throughout the year. Few of these remain in popular usage (though it is still possible to celebrate most of them), yet the ones that we do still celebrate tend to be quite cherished. Tomorrow’s blessing of the throats on the Feast of St. Blaise is certainly one of those.
St. Blaise (sometimes spelled Blase, not to be confused with blasé…) was an Armenian bishop who was martyred about the year 316. Tradition holds that prior to becoming a bishop he had been a physician; moreover, on his way to being martyred, he prayed at the request of a mother whose child was choking to death, and the child was healed. Thus he has come down to us as the patron saint for ailments of the throat.
Devotion to St. Blaise was particularly strong in the Middle Ages, when he was known as one of the “Fourteen Holy Helpers” who were invoked against the Black Plague. Here is an ex voto showing a woman praying to the Helpers – it seems that she is interceding for a sick child; the existence of this ex voto indicates that her prayer was heard:
The blessing is ordinarily conducted using two blessed candles, held in the shape of a cross, and placed over the throat of the person receiving the blessing. As I recall it, the blessing goes like this:
Through the intercession of St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every ailment of the throat and from every other evil. In the name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Why the blessed candles? I found some reasons relating to rather obscure legends about the saint’s having been given candles after rescuing a pig, and so forth. Anyway, let’s just avoid all that and recognize the fact that the candles ordinarily should come from those blessed during the Feast of the Presentation the day before, and that they are a symbol of Christ. It is Christ who heals us through the intercession of his saints; his light dispels the darkness that surrounds us and enters into our lives.
St. Blaise has not always been depicted in art with a lighted candle, as in the above image. Sometimes he has also been shown with the instrument of his torture preceding his martyrdom (by decapitation): a wool carder.
I hope that in your parish there will be the blessing of the throats tomorrow, and that you will try to go to receive it.
St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, pray for us!