Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Naming and Blessing an Infant

It has been my privilege for the last (nearly) seven years to participate in every baby blessing in my ward (when I was not traveling, which is not often on Sunday). My stake president encouraged me, and I agree, that as the "father of the ward" it is a right and a privilege to stand in each baby blessing. It has also been my custom before the baby blessing, to sit down with the Priesthood holder who will be performing the blessing to go over the steps and give some words of counsel and encouragement. I do this with all fathers, regardless of their first time or their tenth. I find it good practice and helpful.

There are a few things that the Handbook encourages and a few things it discourages. One is that large groups are discouraged. In my mind, seven men is the high end of the circle. Ironically, when my oldest was blessed, I counted seventeen men in the circle. Truly, it was ridiculous. There were men in the circle that I didn't even know, men that were invited by other men. Kind of strange. It seems that a small group of Melchizedek Priesthood holders is a better way of doing things. In my mind, it implies a reverence and dignity that the holders possess of the priesthood.

The current (2010) Handbook of Instructions gives five steps to the blessing of a child in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are:

1. Addresses Heavenly Father.
2. States that the blessing is performed by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
3. Gives the child a name.
4. Gives words of blessing as the Spirit directs.
5. Closes in the name of Jesus Christ.

Authority vs. Power:
Even though the instructions in the Handbooks, at least the last two [check this out with the others], state that the ordinance is to be done by the "authority" of the Melchizedek Priesthood and not the "power" of the same, I will still often hear priesthood holders invoke the "power." Is this a big deal? I would say that is a definite maybe. We have been taught that authority is something that all holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood bear. But power is synonymous with righteousness and to state that we are performing the ordinance (and this is true of blessings as well) is to presume that we are righteous when that is a privilege only God Himself can determine. This has been taught most recently by President Boyd K. Packer: "Authority in the priesthood comes by way of ordination; power in the priesthood comes through faithful and obedient living in honoring covenants. It is increased by exercising and using the priesthood in righteousness." ("The Power of the Priesthood," April 2010 General Conference.)

Common ways of the language preceding the naming of the infant:
We often hear something along the lines of, "The name he/she will be known on the records of the Church and throughout his/her mortal life shall be..." There is really no reason to say that. There is no problem with saying that, but it has become more of a customary thing to say rather than something that is proscribed in the instructions. Or at least the Handbooks don't give any preference to this kind of language. On the other hand, a priesthood holder could simply say, "The name we give you is..." With my own children, I have done it both ways.

Either way a father or priesthood holder says it, it seems that we don't really give the infant a blessing. Instead, we state the name of the infant. I don't know that it is a big deal, but it is a little interesting. I wonder if we ought to be giving the name of the baby? It has been my custom when conducting a meeting and I have instructed my counselors to do that same: we announce that the baby will be blessed by the father (or whomever will be performing the blessing), but we do not announce the name of the baby. It seems that if the father has not "given" the name to the baby, it is not my place to preemptively make that declaration.

Blessing or Prayer:
This is the area that I hear the most differing opinions. I must state at the outset that I know good men who see this very differently and I believe that is okay. It is my feeling that good men can disagree on a whole host of things and still enjoy the approbation of Heaven. Having said that, I feel very strongly in one direction over the other. It is my sense that the ordinance of blessing an infant has two parts. The first part is when the father directs his voice to Heavenly Father. Obviously, when he invokes His Holy Name at the beginning of the ordinance, this could be viewed in no other way. But when the father gets to the portion of the ordinance when he is to bestow a blessing, it seems wholly proper for the father to now turn his direction to his child. The language in the 2006 Handbook for this portion of the ordinance is that the man giving voice to the ordinance, "gives a priesthood blessing as the Spirit directs." [check language.] In my mind, this concept was more perfectly illustrated by Elder Bruce R. McConkie. As his son told me the story, when Elder McConkie would travel the Church and speak in Stake Conferences, he would be sometimes asked if, in a baby blessing, the father directs himself to the Father the whole time or half-way through directs his comments of blessing to the infant. I am told that Elder McConkie would respond by saying, "Well, if you want to say a prayer then you had better hand the baby to the mother, because she will give a much better prayer than the father ever will. On the other hand, if you want to give the baby a blessing, you'd better let the father who holds the priesthood do it." Elder McConkie's son, Joseph Fielding McConkie understood this to mean (from other discussions on the topic as well) that when the father begins to give "words of blessing" (2010 Handbook), he is directing himself to the infant, as any priesthood holder would do in any blessing. Another way to look at it is to say the Priesthood is not needed to say a prayer but it is needed to pronounce a Priesthood blessing. If you were the infant which would you rather your father do?

The Handbook (both current and past) also indicates that baby blessings should take place on Fast Sundays. I have been occasionally asked why this is the case. As I have thought about it, I have determined that it is principally a logistical decision. By that I mean because of the flexible nature of a Sacrament Fast and Testimony Meeting; and because a baby blessing often brings larger gatherings and sometimes take a bit of time, Fast Sunday is a better Sunday to do this rather than another Sunday. I am confident there are other reasons, but I cannot think of what they may be at the moment. Another aspect of this is that the ordinance is normally to take place at Church in the Meetinghouse during a regularly scheduled Sacrament Meeting. There are of course exceptions to this, but they are rare and in my opinion should not be sought out. I think the reason they are to be performed at Church in the presence of the ward (other than that is how the Lord told Joseph Smith and the Church members to do it--D&C 20:70), but it is to serve as a reminder to each member present of the purity and primacy of infants and children in the Plan of Salvation.

Therefore, what?:
Beyond all of these rules, policies, regulations, interpretations, and guidelines, there is one question that I get more than any other: why do we do this? Or in other words, what is the doctrine that is involved in giving an infant a name and a blessing? This is an excellent question. In Doctrine and Covenants 20:70 we are commanded to bring infants to the elders of the Church, to have them presented and then blessed. Both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon have many stories of Jesus Christ blessing little children and reminding us "adults" to be more like children. And so, beyond offering the infant a blessing, perhaps the ordinance is to also serve as a reminder to us of the special place babies have in the Lord's Gospel.

It has been an absolute pleasure and one of the highlights of my time as the bishop in our ward to participate in these sacred moments. Each father blesses his infant in different ways. However, there has been a consistency that is wonderful: they are always done by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood. They are always done in love. And I have always felt the presence of the Holy Ghost. The blessing of infant in the Lord's True Church is a blessing not only to the infant, but also to the father and mother and indeed the entire congregation.

- Posted using my iPad

1 comment:

John said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I enjoyed them