Here’s an experiment: stop a pedestrian walking down Commonwealth Avenue and inform them that, on a recent Friday, several million people worldwide lined up to have candles pressed on their necks. You may receive some comical responses. As strange as the statement sounds, however, it describes the feast of St. Blaise, celebrated on February 3rd and accompanied by a “blessing of the throats.” Though many of us are happy enough to accept the blessing as an obscure tradition, what do we know about its origins? How much do we know about St. Blaise himself? Asking ourselves these questions can help us explain the cherished custom to that bewildered pedestrian.
Christians today are fairly removed from St. Blaise, who was killed in 316 A.D. By this time, the early Church had a long list of martyrs. Though Emperor Constantine had just instituted the Edict of Toleration to outlaw the persecutions, his actions did not put an immediate stop to the killing. Violence against Christians still raged in some areas—including Armenia, where the bishop St. Blaise served and died.
It seems strange that the Church could have so little information on someone as notable as a bishop, but this was the case for many early saints. According to Franciscan Media, Blaise’s life was not chronicled extensively until 400 years after his death, and most details of his life were lost to time. We hear that he was a humble man who suffered martyrdom at the hands of a governor. Despite the sparse biography, one legend about the saint remains popular: while imprisoned, a few words from St. Blaise saved a boy from choking on a fishbone. From this episode grew the annual blessing of throats, where we ask the bishop’s protection from related diseases.
Even knowing the historical context, it can be hard to appreciate a tradition’s significance. Some may wonder whether the physical blessing, candles and all, is necessary. Doesn’t prayer alone suffice?
Boston College’s Fr. John Baldovin, S.J., says that it does—but that this misses the point of involving the corporeal in prayer. A professor at the School of Theology and Ministry, Fr. Baldovin sees the Church’s relationship with physical objects (like candles, or Holy Water) as helpful for believers.
“God uses the things of this world in a very practical way,” he explained. “We’re very positive about God’s Creation.”
As human beings, we’re not exceptionally good at rising above our senses. Our passions and imperfections—be they anger, confusion, or even boredom—often keep us from focusing on God. Many Catholic traditions aim at using the senses in a constructive way, and since God gave us those senses in the first place, we may as well use them for good.
Think of how many times you’ve found comfort in a hug, a pat on the shoulder, a kiss on the forehead. These were outward signs of a love that reached beyond the physical, but the physical expression did not degrade that love. Even Christ took on a human nature to be with us—if this does not add sacredness to the corporeal, nothing will. Says Fr. Baldovin, “Catholics believe in the tangibility of the sacred.”
While the faithful are not required to receive blessings like those of St. Blaise, the Church offers them as aids. These traditions provide an opportunity to observe God’s love in a variety of ways—through verbal prayer, mental meditation, and physical touch. And if you missed St. Blaise’s feast day this time around, don’t worry! There are opportunities every day to appreciate the role of the corporeal in prayer—from Holy Water to Lenten Ashes, you really only have to keep an eye out for the ways in which God reaches out to us through His own Creation.