By good fortune the first Sunday in February this year falls on the third day of the month, which happens to be the feast day of Saint Blase. Blase (also spelled Blaise) has been and remains a figure far more popular in the United States and beyond than one might have estimated given his geographical origin and relatively obscure life. The details of his personal history are not clear, but it is believed that in the early fourth century Blase was the bishop of Sebaste, modern day Sivas, in north-central Turkey. Sometime before his martyrdom Blase is said to have interceded and saved a boy who was choking on a fishbone and nearly ever since he has been invoked as a patron saint of those suffering from ailments of the throat.
Generations of Catholic remember lining up in church on the feast of Saint Blase for the “blessing of throats” administered by a priest holding two candles crossed in the form of an “X.” Happily this rite is still with us and this Sunday hopefully many priests will offer the blessing of Saint Blase—though to be sure, it can be given on any day of the year—and non-Catholics may receive the blessing as well. Such sacramental gestures are reminders of the communion of the saints as well as the incarnate nature of our Catholic faith.
Turning to the scripture readings for today, we find the opening of the book of the prophet Jeremiah as our first text, though oddly enough the reading omits his actual calling to the prophetic office. In any case, Jeremiah was called to take up an arduous ministry which would require a disposition of complete self-giving and complete vulnerability before God and before others, something that is extremely difficult. Like Saint Blase, who lived many centuries after him, Jeremiah took up his calling and pursued it faithfully, eventually becoming one of the greatest—and most long-suffering—of Israel’s prophets, just as Blase became one of the greatest bishops and defenders of the Christian faith in his day.
The theme of ministries beginning in difficulty yet producing great harvests continues in the gospel reading, where, taking up where we left off last Sunday, we hear Jesus start his public ministry by preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Near the beginning of the reading Luke reports that the townspeople “all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (Luke 4:22). Yet minutes later, after Jesus had told the people “no prophet is accepted in his own native place” and had reminded them that in the past God had chosen to work through other nations aside from Israel, they turned on him violently. Luke recounts: “They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong” (Luke 4:29).
We know that Jesus endured much hardship throughout the course of his ministry and many attempts on the part of his opponents to discredit and even harm him; even so, he persevered and won for all who believe in him the gifts of redemption and eternal life. What led Jesus to do this, and what led Jeremiah the prophet and Saint Blase the martyr to take up their religious callings was the self-giving spirit that only comes from authentic love. In Jesus this love was perfect and divine, in Jeremiah and Blase it was human and thus on its way to perfection.
Taking our cue from Saint Paul’s teaching on the nature of love in the New Testament reading today from First Corinthians, let us resolve to make Christ’s self-giving love the inspiration for our vocation, whatever it may be and wherever it may lead us, that by enduring difficulty with faith we may yield a full harvest.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: 14th Century wall painting of St Blaise in All Saints Church in Kingston upon Thames, UK