by Nancy Freeman
It is Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer and the beginning of the academic year. By this time, most K-12 students have already returned or will be starting after the long weekend. Back to school also means that many Episcopal churches have a blessing of the backpacks, a tradition I adore. Kids parade up to the altar with their new, clean backpacks, often decorated with popular superheroes, while the pastor and congregation bless them for the school year.
My first experience with Episcopal blessings began when I started attending St. Paul’s in 2000. I became instantly taken with the blessing traditions. Compared to previous experiences with Catholic communities, I realized Episcopalians are blessing enthusiasts! Every weekend service, Father Bacon, pastor at the time, invited those celebrating birthdays or anniversaries and those traveling to come up to the altar after the Prayers of the People. Fr. Bacon asked a few standard questions such as “How old are you?” (A question he reserved for those under 20 or over 70), “How long have you been married?” (Anything over ten years garnered enthusiastic clapping from parishioners) and “Where are you traveling?” (Journeys to foreign countries often elicited excited “ohhhs”) The congregation then read in unison the appropriate blessing from the Book of Common Prayer while Fr. Bacon made the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead.
Episcopalians not only bless people and backpacks, but also bless pets in October at the feast of St. Francis. At my parish, St. Paul’s, pet blessing occurs after the service so folks can dash home to get their beloved animals. I assume that in the past, one too many accidents in the church pushed Fr. Bacon over the edge, so the event is now held outside. What I love about these Episcopal traditions is the concept of imparting God’s blessing to individuals or pets with the involvement and support of the faith community. There is nothing wrong with parishioners invoking God’s love and protection.
I come by my blessing fondness honestly, from my very Roman Catholic maternal grandmother. In the 1970s, every holiday and once during the summer, my parents would pack-up my two younger brothers and me in our station wagon to drive four hours one way from Iowa to my grandparents in South Dakota. My father was a farmer who raised pigs, so we would leave at the crack of dawn after morning chores, and return in time for evening chores.
No matter the weather, when it came time for us to return home, my grandparents would stand in the driveway to see us off. My grandmother would hold a small plastic bottle labeled, “Holy Water.” We would pile into the car and my grandmother would pour a bit of the water into her palm. She would then use her other hand and flick water onto the car.
I realized years later that the holy water blessing imprinted tradition upon me, even though our reactions inside the car would be anything but holy. My father, always anxious to return to the farm, would smile indulgently at my grandmother but mutter under his breath, “We need to get on the road,” or “It’s getting late.” My mother, on the other hand, would be trying to settle the three of us down for the four-hour car ride home – after hours of playing with cousins, my brothers and I would be so wound up that we could not sit still. We needed all the blessings we could get!
The first time I witnessed a backpack blessing, I thought it was another sweet Episcopal tradition to bless just about every occasion. I smiled at the cute kids with their clean backpacks, noticing what superheroes or Disney characters were popular. However, my view of the Episcopal backpack blessing tradition shifted and became concrete when my daughter began school. I worried more about her: Would she be safe, have friends, and learn? I came to see the power of the blessing because God is with the child no matter what happens to the backpack.
I also now see my grandmother’s car blessing penchant differently. While I once thought of it as a quaint Roman Catholic practice, I now understand the intentions behind this ritual. My grandmother sprinkled the car with holy water to invite God’s blessing and protection on those she loved.
Good and gracious God, please bless this backpack and the person carrying it. Send your love and guidance to each child. Instill a love of learning and bring them safely home after the school day. We ask this in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.