Last Tuesday in the Western Christian calendar was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates Herod’s murder of the children who might have been Jesus:
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. —Matthew 2:16
Even Christians who devoutly proclaim the Incarnation, the virgin birth and the divinity of Christ get squeamish about whether this actually happened, but arguing about historicity misses the point of the story and of the commemoration: horrors of this nature have happened, and do happen, and children suffer most for the schemes of adults. The Catholic and Anglican traditions keep plenty of days to remember martyrs and saints who are praiseworthy because they chose their paths; this is a day to recall those who were too young to choose or even to accept their fate.
It’s also a day to bless and ask blessings on children, and I found this old prayer for Catholic laity, which I believe came from one or another version of the Baltimore Book of Prayers:
O God our Father, whose Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, once embraced the little children who were brought to him, saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and their angels always see the face of my Father;” Look now, we beseech thee, on the innocence of these children: Bless them and protect them this night and throughout their lives; (the parent makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of each child) in thy grace and goodness let them advance continually, longing for thee, knowing thee, and loving thee, that they may at the last come to their destined home and behold thee face to face; through Jesus Christ, the Holy Child of Bethlehem, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Then, taking the head of each child in both hands, a parent says to each one: May God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit bless you and keep you both now and for evermore. Amen.
This is a beautiful prayer, the sort of thing (like the Feast of the Holy Innocents) I’d never been exposed to in my days of Methodist Youth. If I was prayed over, and I assume I must have been, I don’t remember it, because the prayers made no impression. The language of this prayer is lovely, and serious; what’s even lovelier and more serious is that it isn’t about the person doing the praying. There is a Protestant belief that if you aren’t
making it up as you go along immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit you aren’t sincere in your prayer, but not everyone is a professional writer, not everyone has a way with words, not everyone is extraverted or sufficiently fearless to speak aloud for others their hopes and fears and feelings — or even necessarily to know what they are, until they’re reminded. Though that strain of Protestantism is meant to be egalitarian — no top-down directed praying for us! — I’m increasingly inclined to see it as elitist: The theological and literary rich, unfettered by tradition, can fly as high as they like, while the poor in spirit flounder in a sea of dull maxims and half-baked banalities.
Here, by contrast, is a beautiful, direct, concise, sincere prayer available to any parent. Surely we don’t need to question the sincerity of parents’ love for their children, and even a father who does write well, and who has composed prayers and poems for his daughter, appreciates (maybe more than most) the blessing of not always having to roll his own. Why not stand on the shoulders of giants, when you can?
And so Tuesday night at bedtime I sprung this on my kid. I might have changed thee and thou to you and converted the -eth to -s, but the formality served as a clue to the seriousness of what I was doing and asking. She understood the gesture; YMMV. Your kids may just be embarrassed by this sort of thing; but then again you’re going to embarrass them regardless, so why not do it with style?
Be warned, though, that it may be hard to make the sign of the cross on your child’s forehead without choking up.