This evening, on the Vigil of the Assumption, I offered the traditional Blessing of Herbs that is affiliated with this feast day. This is the first time as a priest I had done so. This blessing has mostly fallen off our Catholic radar (although I have seen notices of many other priests offering it this year — I guess the Spirit is moving!). In any case, it is a great example of the wide variety of blessings that the Church offers for so many moments throughout our year.
Some wonder, Why do we bless herbs – especially on this particular feast?
An introduction to this blessing from an old ritual book gives us the following background:
This blessing comes from Germany, and formulas for it are found as early as the tenth century. The blessing of herbs was reserved only to the feast of the Assumption. Herbs had not our restricted English meaning but included all kinds of cultivated and wild flowers, especially those which in some way had a symbolic relation to our Lady. The people brought herbs to church on her feast not only to secure for themselves another blessed object, but also to make of the occasion a harvest festival of thanksgiving to God for His great bounty manifested in the abundant fruits of the earth. The herbs were placed on the altar, and even beneath the altar-cloths, so that from this close contact with the Eucharist they might receive a special consecration, over and above the ordinary sacramental blessing of the Church.
We don’t put them on the altar anymore — much less under the altar cloth!
In my homily this evening, I also offered the following:
The celebration of the Feast of the Assumption dates back to ancient times, but until the end of the sixth century it was held on January 18. Mauritius, the Emperor of Constantinople, moved its celebration to August 15, where it has remained ever since. And this time corresponds roughly with the summer harvest season in the Northern Hemisphere; thus we see one of the ways that our liturgical calendar follows the rhythms of life. While the first fruits of the summer crops are being gathered, so also we honor our Blessed Mother as the first fruits of God’s great harvest of salvation.
 Cf. Pius Parsch, The Church’s Year of Grace, vol. IV (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1964), pp. 318-319.
In other words, the blessing of herbs is a very concrete way that we sanctify our day-to-day, connecting it with the mysteries of our faith and our salvation. Mary is the first fruits; so on her feast, we bless some of our first fruits.
(However, this blessing is not restricted only to those who actually have a garden or grow herbs. It’s totally find to buy herbs in the grocery store and bring them for a blessing! Graces are meant to be multiplied, not restricted.)
It is important also to note that it is permissible to include flowers and vegetables also in what one has blessed on this day — it is not strictly for what we now consider to be “herbs”.
One of the prayers of the blessing really struck me. This is powerful stuff! Here it is:
O God, who through Moses, your servant, directed the children of Israel to carry their sheaves of new grain to the priests for a blessing, to pluck the finest fruits of the orchard, and to make merry before you, the Lord their God; hear our supplications, and shower blessings + in abundance upon us and upon these bundles of new grain, new herbs, and this assortment of produce which we gratefully present to you on this festival, blessing + them in your name. Grant that men, cattle, flocks, and beasts of burden find in them a remedy against sickness, pestilence, sores, injuries, spells, against the fangs of serpents or poisonous creatures. May these blessed objects be a protection against diabolical mockery, cunning, and deception wherever they are kept, carried, or otherwise used. Lastly, through the merits of the blessed Virgin Mary, whose Assumption we are celebrating, may we all, laden with the sheaves of good works, deserve to be taken up to heaven; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Some may look down on these old blessings as hopelessly outdated, from simple, pre-scientific times, etc. Their loss!
A final thought: one thing that has continually struck me as a priest is how God humiliates the devil and the demons not only through sinful creatures (i.e., priests who have been given authority over them — priests, who are far lower than angels in the hierarchy of beings), but even through material things which he has enriched with divine blessing. How much the devil must hate it when we use these things with faith and gratitude to God!
A blessed feast of the Assumption to all! Here is my favorite image of Mary assumed into heaven:
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