“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,” a childhood bedtime ritual in many families, followed by a recitation of blessing requests, “God bless …” When I was a child, the prayer ended, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Not the most pleasant thought for a child preparing to enter the dark realm of sleep. For my children, I changed that phrase to, “Watch over me all through the night, and wake me with the morning light,” a much more pleasant thought upon which to end the day.
I don’t know when the first parent prayed over their child at bed time, but I suspect it started with Adam and Eve praying over their sons. A sleeping child is the picture of peace, and yet that peaceful sleep is often disrupted by nightmares and fear of monsters hiding in the closet or under the bed. All reason to pray with children to chase those fears away and assure them of God’s watchful care for them.
Psalm 134 is one such blessing prayer. It concludes the pilgrim psalms which started with Psalm 120. It is a benediction for use at the end of the day of worship or the end of a festival as pilgrims prepared to go home. It served as a Nunc Dimittis – Simeon’s prayer of dismissal from Luke 2:29-31 commonly used during Night Prayer, or Compline. “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.”
The psalm starts with a call to bless the Lord. “Behold, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand by night in the house of the Lord!” (1) The word bless in this verse means to praise God, using words that declare God’s greatness and goodness. The members of the congregation raise their hands in prayer. “Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord.” (2) The psalm ends with a prayer of blessing on the people. “May the Lord bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth!” (3) Thus the festival ends and, blessed by God, the participants are dismissed.
It used to be common practice to bless travelers whenever they embarked on a journey. In Old Testament times, pilgrims confronted many dangers during their travels and so required a blessing before they left. Today church services end with a benediction, praying God’s blessing on the people before leaving church, a throwback to those early times.
There are many prayers of blessing and many reasons for needing a blessing. Celtic Christians had a blessing for everything and bestowed those blessings liberally throughout the day. It served as a reminder of God’s presence and our need for God. However this practice has fallen into disuse.
While travel today is vastly different from Old Testament time, there is still danger; it just takes on different forms. We don’t know for sure when we say good-bye whether we will see our loved one again. Our sleep is often characterized by tossing and turning as we confront our own personal demons. Death does come in sleep for some. All the more reason to bless each other at our comings and goings and each night.
We readily embrace each other when we meet and depart, a physical form of blessing. Why not add a short prayer of blessing?
What is your experience with blessing prayers? Do you bless your children as they leave for school each day as well as bless them at night when the go to bed? Do you bless yourself? Your spouse? I would love to know.
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