St. Blaise is given special recognition on February 3, not only with a feast day, but with a unique ceremony that parallels the practice of anointing the sick. In this case, it is blessing the throats of those with throat disorders and anyone who wishes to avoid getting such a malady (or something related to the throat, even the words one speaks; see Psalm 5:10). The blessing is usually done by priests (though deacons may also serve) and it is considered a sacramental of the Church.
An excellent rendition of the story of St. Blaise was written by Father William Saunders (below), pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at the Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria, Virginia. His comments were published in the Arlington Catholic Herald (1/30/03) in honor of the upcoming festival day, and in response to a question about the blessing. His answer:
Unfortunately, what is known about the life of St. Blaise derives from various traditions. His feast day is celebrated in the East on Feb. 11 and in the West on Feb. 3 (although it was observed on Feb. 15 until the 11th century). All sources agree that St. Blaise was the Bishop of Sebaste in Armenia who suffered martyrdom under Licinius about A.D. 316. (Remember that Emperor Constantine had legalized the practice of Christianity in 313, but Licinius, his ally and co-emperor who had concurred in legalizing Christianity, betrayed him and began persecuting the Church. Constantine defeated Licinius in 324.) From here, we rely on the tradition which has been associated with our liturgical celebrations over the centuries, which does not necessarily preempt their veracity or accuracy.
In accord with various traditions, St. Blaise was born to rich and noble parents, and received a Christian education. He was a physician before being consecrated a bishop at a young age. Although such a statement seems terse, keep in mind that at that time the local community usually nominated a man to be a bishop based on his outstanding holiness and leadership qualities; he in turn was then examined and consecrated by other bishops with the approval of the Holy Father. Therefore, St. Blaise must have been a great witness of our Faith, to say the least.
During the persecution of Licinius, St. Blaise, receiving some divine command, moved from the town, and lived as a hermit in a cave. Wild animals visited, and he healed any that were sick and wounded. One day, a group of hunters gathering wild beasts for the game in the amphitheater discovered St. Blaise and seized him. As he was being taken to the governor Agricolaus, the governor of Cappadocia and Lesser Armenia, St. Blaise encountered a woman whose pig was being seized by a wolf; St. Blaise commanded the wolf to release the pig, and it was freed unhurt.
While in prison, he miraculously cured a small boy who was choking to death on a fishbone lodged in his throat. Also, the woman whose pig had been saved brought St. Blaise candles so that his cell would have light and he could read the sacred Scriptures.
Eventually, Agricolaus condemned St. Blaise for upholding his Christian faith rather than apostatizing. He was tortured with the iron comb (an instrument designed for combing wool but was used here for shredding the skin) and finally beheaded.
By the sixth century, St. Blaise's intercession was invoked for diseases of the throat in the East. As early as the eighth century, records attest to the veneration of St. Blaise in Europe, and he became one of the most popular saints in the spiritual life of the Middle Ages. Many altars were dedicated to his honor, and even the Abbey of St. Blaise in southern Germany claimed to have some of his relics.
St. Blaise is also venerated as one of the "Fourteen Holy Helpers," a group of saints invoked as early as the 12th century in Germany and who are honored on Aug. 8: St. Denis of Paris (headache and rabies), St. Erasmus or Elmo (colic and cramp), St. Blaise (throat ailments), St. Barbara (lightning, fire, explosion and sudden and unprepared death), St. Margaret (possession and pregnancy), St. Catherine of Alexandria (philosophers and students, and wheelwrights), St. George (protector of soldiers), Sts. Achatius and Eustace (hunters), St. Pantaleon (tuberculosis), St. Giles (epilepsy, insanity, and sterility), St. Cyriac (demonic possession), St. Vitus (epilepsy), and St. Christopher (travelers). The German Dominicans promoted this veneration, particularly at the Church of St. Blaise in Regensburg (c. 1320).
One reason for St. Blaise's popularity arose from the fact he was a physician who cured, even performing miraculous cures. Thereby, those who were sick, especially with throat ailments, invoked his intercession. Eventually the custom of the blessing of throats arose, whereby the priest held two crossed candles over the heads of the faithful or touched their throats with them while he invoked the prayer of the saint and imparted God's blessing. In our present Roman Ritual, the priest prays, "Through the intercession of St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." This practice continues in many parishes on St. Blaise's feast day.
While we invoke St. Blaise for his protection against any physical ailment of the throat, we should also ask his protection against any spiritual ailment - profanity, cursing, unkind remarks, detraction or gossip. St. James reminds us, "If a man who does not control his tongue imagines that he is devout, he is self-deceived; his worship is pointless" (1:26) and later, "We use [the tongue] to say, 'Praised be the Lord and Father'; then we use it to curse men, though they are made in the likeness of God. Blessing and curse come out of the same mouth. This ought not to be, my brothers!" (3:9-10). Therefore, may St. Blaise protect us from all evil, physical and spiritual, which may attack the throat.
[Arlington Catholic Herald Web Site: http://www.catholicherald.com/]
The blessing of the throat is carried out using two white taper candles that were blessed on the previous day, February 2, Candlemas Day, the Feast of the Presentation (see following story). The white color of the candles symbolizes purity. Often, a red ribbon will be draped over the base of the candles, the red symbolizing the martyrdom of St. Blaise. The candles are grasped in an X-shape and held up to the throat of the person receiving the blessing (which was mentioned by Father Saunders):
"Through the intercession of St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
|Some photos of the blessing of the throat. Lower right is a commonly seen prayer card for St. Blaise, in which he is blessing a sick child who is holding her throat, presented by her mother, and St. Blaise is holding two white candles, crossed.|
On February 2, the Latin Rite of the Roman Church celebrates Candlemas, which is also known as the feast day of the Presentation of Christ at the Temple. The origins of this observance are found in Mosaic Law, which in Jesus' day required a male child to be presented at the temple in Jerusalem, along with making a sacrificial offering, 40 days after birth (a period of purification for the mother). Once Christmas was established on December 25 (this occurred around 375 A.D.), the Presentation feast was observed on February 2. In Icons of this event, Mary is seen presenting the child to Simeon (with her are Joseph and the prophetess Anna); the story is relayed in the Gospel of Luke (2: 22-35):
And when the day came for them to be purified in keeping with the Law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord-observing what is written in the Law of the Lord: Every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord-and also to offer in sacrifice, in accordance with what is prescribed in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
Now in Jerusalem there was a man named Simeon. He was an upright and devout man; he looked forward to the restoration of Israel and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had set eyes on the Christ of the Lord.
Prompted by the Spirit he came to the Temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for Him what the Law required, he took him into his arms and blessed God; and he said,
"Now, Master, you are letting your
servant go in peace
as you promised;
for my eyes have seen the salvation,
which you have made ready in the
sight of the nations,
a light of revelation for the gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel."
As the child's father and mother were wondering at the things that were being said about him, Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "Behold, he is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is opposed-and a sword will pierce your soul too-so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.
The blessing of the candles on this day of the Presentation, including incensing them and sprinkling them with holy water, was introduced around the 11th Century. The candles are then distributed to the clergy and the laity. The light from the candles represents the Christ, the Light of the World. The candles received by St. Blaise-while he was confined to his cell awaiting his death-he used to read the sacred Scripture.