Today’s post brings us to the conclusion of URC Psalmody’s series on the liturgy of the Dutch Reformed tradition. We’ve examined the historical background of our churches’ worship structure, and we’ve progressed through some notable aspects of a typical Sunday morning service, like the votum and the reading of the decalogue. After the call to worship, confession, prayer, preaching, singing, and responses, one distinctive element remains: the benediction or parting blessing.
Meetings of many kinds end with a note of farewell, and almost any Christian church would ordinarily conclude its worship service with some kind of dismissal. But you may notice that the benediction in the Reformed worship service seems to bear some kind of added significance. In fact, if you pay very close attention, you’ll notice that only ordained ministers—not elders or seminarians—are permitted to administer the parting blessing with outstretched hands. Why are our churches so particular? What does the benediction actually represent?
The Psalter Hymnal Supplement comments, “In Reformation liturgies, the dismissal is more proclamatory than petitionary—more of a means of grace than a prayer” (113). We believe the dismissal carries the full weight of a direct promise of God. “The apostolic blessing is the proclamation of God’s gracious intention: it is rooted in the Gospel promise and, therefore, in God’s desire to give grace to His people” (114).
The benediction often takes the form of the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (vv. 24-26 ESV). But whether the minister uses these words or others, he is not just expressing a wish or a prayer. He doesn’t qualify the blessing with “ifs,” soften it with “mays,” or generalize it by replacing “you” with “us.” In delivering the parting blessing the minister speaks with the authority of God himself, declaring the Lord’s lasting favor on those he has reconciled to himself. God’s blessing is not something we have to repeatedly beg for or anxiously await; it is guaranteed us as his people. The benediction assures us that God’s good favor will rest upon us through the coming week until we gather to worship him again.
The Liturgical Committee notes, “[T]he customary gesture of the arms stretched and palms down, carries the ancient symbolism of an endowed blessing. The minister does not conclude the service by wishing his parishioners well. He concludes by summoning them to receive the parting promises of God’s mercy and peace” (114).
This, in a nutshell, expresses the beautiful pattern of Reformed, Biblical worship. We could summarize it in the glorious terms of Psalm 118: God has opened to us the gates of righteousness, that we may enter through them and give him thanks. He has answered us and become our salvation. Christ, the stone that the builders rejected, has become the cornerstone of the temple he is building for himself—the church. We stand in awe at the Lord’s doing, marvelous in our eyes. And we go forth from his courts believing and rejoicing that “the LORD is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us” (v. 27).
What cause for celebration!
Note: Several churches in the United Reformed Churches in North America have created explanations of their particular liturgies and worship practices. Here are a few helpful summaries: