Q. Sometimes at our parish, we are asked to raise our hands and join the priest as he offers a blessing over someone. Where did this practice begin? Can you explain the difference between a blessing from a priest and one from a layperson?
A. It has become a popular custom in many churches in North America to sing The Blessing Song… “May the blessings of the Lord be upon you; we bless you in the name of the Lord…” or even to invite people to extend their hands over another while a blessing is prayed. Properly understood, this can be good. The act of blessing is manifold. The word itself has its origins in both Greek and Latin meaning ‘to utter a good word’ or, ‘to speak well of something or someone’.
With that understanding, we can see why all throughout the Psalms we read about blessing the Lord – in other words, praising Him and proclaiming His goodness. In that sense, we can bless each other by speaking good of them or for them. It is an ancient custom in many cultures for parents to bless their children before bed or before leaving the house. It is a way of praying for good over them. Thus, there is certainly a legitimate place for praying blessings – God’s “good words” – over others.
The blessing which a deacon or priest imparts is one where the Church has granted him the authority to impart grace in her name. In the case of priests exclusively, he stands in the place of Christ, as if it were He himself imparting a blessing. They all have their origins in the same concept but they naturally vary in the degree of grace which is imparted by virtue of the one imparting, either doing so as a member of Christ’s flock, as a minister of His Church, or as He himself.